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The Real Poop

Former Supreme Court Justice (and Borat moustache enthusiast) Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously remarked that his job wasn’t to do justice; that was "their" job. He was referring to Criminal Justice lawyers.

A long time ago, in a courtroom far, far away, there were…Law Wars. For over a thousand generations, peace and harmony reigned in the Republic because of Lawyers, upholders of the Constitution, learned in the ways of justice. However, the temptation to use the Constitution as a sword was too great. Lawyers sued anyone for anything legal, from small claims compensation for breach of a contract for the sale of droids, to regal machine-men paternity suits, and product liability claims predicated on defective space station design (Empire 1, Stan's Vent 'n Trench 0). They even sued Satan. Don't believe us? Check out United States ex rel. Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff. They were unsuccessful, though; it turns out there are laws against patricide. It wasn't long after that they started suing themselves, plundering the Republic into cannibalistic confusion.

Criminal justice lawyers believe that they are the direct descendants of that ancient race of noble lawyers that guarded the Constitution. It's not about money, no. Being a lawyer is all about making sure only the guilty are punished and giving everyone a fair trial. It's about promoting respect for the law, about salving the wounds of the victims of crime, and delivering all those sons of Adam who have sinned against the light of law into the winged embrace of society in recognition of errare humanum est, Mom’s apple pie, and Fourth of July Fireworks. God Bless America! Well...maybe their beliefs aren't that high. But lawyers who go into criminal law generally will say they felt a higher professional calling in the name of public good.

Apart from supererogatory motives, criminal justice lawyers love to go court. It may come as a surprise, but most lawyers don't see a courtroom. In the parlance of the profession, most lawyers are transactional attorneys—people with the right forms who know how to fill them out with magic legalese, drafters (sometimes for drifters—clients who come and go), and those who counsel clients about what judicial eyebrows will be raised based on what action is taken. Not criminal justice lawyers. If you go into the business of criminal law, you better love the look of mahogany furniture with lady justice décor and get used to the ensuing backache. It may be due to the chairs, but more likely it's because you’ll be leaning over the edge of your seat for hours, ready to pounce and object.

It is the inevitable evolution of the trial lawyer from homo sapiens to homo lexiens. Criminal justice lawyers don’t mind getting dirty with cases from start to finish. It's all about the trial rush of orally arguing a motion, extemporizing on the wire, getting that head nod from a judge, examining a killer witness, and passionately arguing a case to a jury. It's been said that a litigator is one who is always prepared, but never ready for trial. Trial lawyers, on the other hand, are never prepared, but always ready.

So what kind of criminal justice lawyer are you, a prosecutor or defense attorney? Prosecutors are the Johnny Laws who represent the government in a criminal action. They’re the kind of people who are true believers in the system, who go to law school to make the proverbial difference in no-nonsense black suits, like honorary judges. Whatever debate philosophers, theologians, and law professors are still perpetuating about the definition and meaning of justice, prosecutors will tell you that they not only know justice, but do justice. They dish out justice like F-bombs on HBO.

All that is to say it takes a lot of conviction to be a prosecutor. As a prosecutor, the state is the "client," not the victim, which means that you have to think of the interests of the community—not just whether the defendant should win Parent of the Year. The core of your case is people, which includes the defendant. For other lawyer, if they put on their economist hats, they can avoid coming face-to-face with many emotionally tough questions in the law. For example, if the costs outweigh the benefits of a contract, break it. A little bit of forget-me-not moolah can clear up those emotional pangs. Not so with the prosecutor. To be sure, crimes can be economic, but it’s people's fundamental rights of life and liberty that are at stake, which command weightier reflection. When you finally do decide to prosecute, you have to be prepared for an uphill battle. The entire burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is on you, and you'll be keeping cases for a long time.

As for defense attorneys...ah. Prosecutors think these guys are the dark side, the devil's myrmidons, and Christopher Walken all rolled into one. Like the answer to almost every question in the law, it depends. Most of the defendants in the criminal system aren't exactly innocent intellectual political prisoners that were falsely locked up for preaching the superiority of 7-Up to Sprite. Many are poor, uneducated, vulgar...a little rough around the edges, so to speak, with a lot of inculpatory evidence stacked against them.

Knowing this, there are two types of people who decide to be defense attorneys. The first are devil's advocates. They're not just avaricious, but look the part. The defendant is their client, and in order to make clients feel comfortable, they can't look like the Man. Charismatic, off the rack suits, tans, long, greasy hair, and consigliere smugness may all be part of that defense attorney mystique. Beware, these Bill Belichicks play to win, no matter whom they represent.

The second are saints. They win over defendants who have been made to feel like untouchables with grace and genuine concern. Their vivaciousness unabashedly expresses itself further in their dress, which splashes some much-needed color among the otherwise black and battleship gray uniforms of judicial officers. Their power of persuasion comes from their humanism and ability to convey their understanding of others' conditions. They acquire this strength from the quiet trust they get from not being afraid to lose a case if they give it their best shot. Indeed, for those going into criminal defense, be prepared to lose, not in the least because many of the rules of criminal procedure heavily favor the government. All the same, long odds are what attract people to criminal defense, and make the victories for individual rights all the sweeter.