So you wanna be a criminal lawyer, eh?

So you wanna be a criminal lawyer, eh?
Joel Hechter asked himself a simple question when deciding what area of practice to pursue: “Of all the lawyers I know, which are happiest?”

That query seems completely reasonable at first blush. After all, who wants to wake up in the morning dreading what comes next? But for many law students, short-term questions like how to pay off gargantuan debts, and long-term considerations like financial security, force the “happiness test” to the back burner. And students who do ask themselves those questions are increasingly scratching Hechter’s answer — criminal defence — from their list.

It’s long been held that criminal defence work is one of the tougher areas of law in which to carve a niche. Paid summer student placements are scarce, and it can be a real uphill battle to find an articling position. The quandary has worsened in the past decade with dwindling legal aid budgets. Established criminal defence lawyers have had a hard enough time keeping a roof over their own heads, without propping up a student whose tasks are restricted by law society rules.

Meanwhile, the few students who do find an articling spot can forget the cushy working environment afforded by most full-service firm placements, and face the prospect of a career that may hinge on high-volume, and often high-stress, legal aid work. To top it off, defence counsel are often vilified by the general public, viewed more as impediments to justice than defenders of the public’s constitutional rights.

But for people like Hechter, a University of Toronto Faculty of Law grad now articling with a small firm, criminal defence work was a no-brainer. “The people who were most like me, who seemed to enjoy the creative challenge of it, were practising criminal law,” says Hechter.

Recent law graduates like Hechter are a relief to people like Montreal lawyer Isabel Schurman, who is vice chairwoman of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers and a sessional lecturer at McGill University’s Faculty of Law. She suggests this much-maligned area of practice has been given a bad rap over the years, and more students should open their eyes to a career in criminal defence. “It’s a shame that the field is so misunderstood,” says Schurman. “I think it’s a shame that people never realize the important role that defence counsel play until they, or someone in their family, needs representation, and then realize that it’s not simply this television or movie image of defence counsel. We are in fact the watchdogs for the fairness in our system of criminal justice, and without a strong defence bar, the whole system suffers, and so does the citizen’s right to be left alone by the state.”

Despite that vital and historical role played by defence lawyers, the number of students seeking a future in the area is dwindling. The University of Western Ontario’s law school indicated to 4Students it is considering putting an end to its criminal law concentration program. Another said it couldn’t comment on the outlook for students interested in criminal defence work, because no one on staff had adequate knowledge of the area to do so. While schools continue to help students cut their teeth in the area through legal aid clinics, more and more would-be criminal lawyers are forced to pound the pavement for months to land articling spots.

It is also possible students are not so much turned off the practice area’s dark side, but instead diverted from it by large firms’ powerful recruitment strategies. Robyn Martilla, director of Western Faculty of Law’s career and professional development office, says it’s difficult for students to find information on criminal law articling positions. “The schools tend to get a lot of information from private firms, like the large Bay Street group,” says Martilla. “So that information is easily available to students. But it’s much more difficult to find information about positions in either family or criminal law.”

Schurman says there are limited positions but students  are misguided in the perception that they will not find a spot. “My experience in the last 25 years has been, if a student is truly interested in criminal defence law, and truly wants to make their way in that field, I have seen very few who haven’t been able to find an opening, profit from an opportunity, or otherwise work their way into the field,” she says. “It takes a lot of determination. It takes a real passion for the practice of criminal defence law, but it’s far from impossible.”

Because criminal defence firms tend to be small and often rely on a high volume of legal aid work, they usually do not conduct interviews for student positions in an organized way, or years in advance. That means students must show initiative and go out into the market and get to know lawyers at local firms who may do future hiring, says Schurman. She says while criminal law firms don’t have the formalized recruitment process of large civil law firms, most do require the help of students when large files arise. But the only way to latch on to a firm when those big cases arise is by first getting your name out there.

At the same time, Schurman cautions students against offering their services for free, suggesting it’s a sign the firm may just exploit them. “The only thing that as a question of principle I will never do, is hire a student who says, ‘I don’t even care if you pay me.’ I think students underestimate their worth. If you’re being given an opportunity at a place where they’ll only take you if you’ll go there without being paid . . . I don’t think it’s fair to the students.”

However, the trouble of finding student positions is not uniform across the country. Monique St. Germain, director of professional development and alumni relations at the University of Manitoba’s Robson Hall Faculty of Law, says a supportive local bar in Winnipeg has made it easier for aspiring criminal defence lawyers to break into the profession. She says there are always jobs posted for students interested in working with a lawyer in the city. “Our market isn’t necessarily the same as other markets,” says St. Germain. “We’re smaller.” Many of the lawyers who practise in Manitoba went to Robson Hall, which she suggests has helped keep the interests of students at the school on their mind when they begin practising. She says she is not aware of a single Robson Hall student who has not found a position in criminal defence. “You’re not going to be working in a big fancy firm, but certainly there’s a lot of opportunity to get jobs in this area.”

Shannon Leo, co-director of career services at U of T’s law school, says it’s vital for students interested in a career in criminal defence law to work in a legal clinic. She says firms who hire articling students “really value that experience.” You can also pad your resumé by landing a paid research fellowship at an organization that does criminal-related work, such as the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. Other students have made a start by acting as research assistants to criminal law professors. If none of that comes through, she says it may be necessary to do unpaid summer work to augment non-law-related, paid work. “The real key is to show that dedication to the work when they are applying for articling.”

Meanwhile, the strategies Hechter employed to land his articling spot can benefit students looking to land a job where opportunities are few and far between. He spent a summer at U of T’s legal clinic, Downtown Legal Services, concentrating on criminal law and immigration and getting his feet wet doing prep work for trials. At the same time, he introduced himself to criminal defence lawyers whose work he was impressed with, and kept his eye out for any opportunities to meet lawyers practising in the area. “I met one lawyer on the bus who ended up hiring me to do some research for him, on the way back from school one day,” says Hechter. He says it was all about “looking for opportunities to connect with people in the profession, and who were doing specific things that I was interested in doing.”

That positioning paid off when it was time for him to land an articling spot. He ended up with offers from various Toronto firms, all of which were familiar with him.

While students with enough drive and ambition can find an articling spot, bigger questions can arise once that term ends. Many face the prospect of hanging their own shingle in order to pursue their dream, but that’s a move many seasoned criminal defence lawyers caution against.

Toronto lawyer Patrice Band worked as an assistant Crown attorney and as counsel at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario before opening his own criminal defence practice in 2006. By the time he started on his own, Band had been a practising lawyer for nearly a decade, and even he found it a struggle to juggle everything involved in running his own shop. “It’s really, really challenging,” says Band. “I came at it laterally with a fairly good grasp of the law and a lot of trial practice under my belt, and so my main challenge apart from getting clients was figuring out how to run the business. To have to do all three things at once — figure out the business, learn the ropes in terms of the law side, and get clients and get paid — that would be a really huge challenge.” He adds it would be “next to impossible” for new lawyers to attempt such a move in isolation. So while the temptation to cut overhead costs by working from home may make sense from a financial standpoint, it may limit your ability to prosper.

A good idea is joining forces with other lawyers, which helps cut down on expenses while at the same time providing an atmosphere that allows you to draw off the experience of others. Ideally, says Band, such an arrangement would include lawyers with varying levels of experience. “The temptation is to limit your overhead, because that’s something to some degree you can control,” he says. “So people are tempted to work out of their basement, so to speak. The problem is, they’re alone in their basement, unless they’re extremely well-suited to just reaching out a lot.”

Victoria, B.C., lawyer Andrew Tam employed a strategy similar to Band’s idea. Tam entered the University of Victoria Faculty of Law intending to get into corporate law, but switched his focus after his second year following a stint at the school’s legal aid clinic. He graduated in 1999, and after finishing his articles with a Victoria firm, Tam opened a practice with his friend Michael Mulligan, who had graduated a year ahead of him. “By the time I was ready to join him, he had enough of a business going that it made sense for us to join forces,” says Tam. They were soon joined by Paul Pearson, a 1999 call, and Mulligan’s more experienced father, Robert, who was called to the bar in 1973, came on board in 2002.

Tam even suggests that criminal law may be one of the easier areas of practice to break into, depending on how you attack the start of your career. “A lot of criminal work when you’re starting out, or even for some it carries on into their careers, is legal aid work,” he says. “Word gets around very quickly if you do a good job, and it doesn’t take long to get busy. So I wouldn’t discourage young students, or students about to start their practice, if they’re interested in criminal law. I think there’s work out there; I wouldn’t say there’s a lack of prospects.”

Tam says he was the only person in his immediate law school social circle to pursue criminal defence work. He has a theory on why so few students consider it a viable option: “Until you’re in the milieu, there’s a perception that it is perhaps not as prestigious as being in a big firm downtown. Maybe income levels are promised better in those venues.”

Michael Pasquale is one young criminal defence lawyer who has not been swayed by anything. The Toronto-based Western law grad was called to the bar in 2007, and since then has worked hard to create a solo law practice that he says will bring in about $70,000 this year, and have him working about 55 hours a week. His practice consists of a mix of pure Criminal Code cases, Provincial Offences Act matters, and administrative tribunals. About half of the work he does is motor vehicle-related, such as drinking and driving offences, along with general assistance for people with their licensing.

From a business standpoint, Pasquale says finding office space was the biggest roadblock he faced in getting his practice running. He started out in an office in suburban Etobicoke, but he needed a spot on the subway line or near other public transit to meet the needs of his clients, particularly those facing driving offence charges. He discovered a company catering to small businesses that offers shared, prime office space, complete with conference room availability, phone service, receptionists, and other services. Pasquale struck a three-year service agreement with the company that leases the space, called Regus, for an office downtown. There are about 16 other lawyers on his floor, all in different practice areas. “It’s the perfect solution for anybody who wants to have a small business, especially a law practice,” he says, adding that the cost savings are massive. “Can you imagine, I’m at Yonge and Dundas next to the Eaton Centre . . . I’m right on the subway line. I don’t even need to walk outside; I can walk up from Dundas station and walk up into my building lobby.”

Pasquale has also found success through pro bono work, offering free seminars and advice to members of his church, for example. “It’s good outreach work,” he says. “It’s not only good for the soul, but good for your bottom line too, because you get your name out there so much, knowing that you actually care about the public and want to help advocate for other things.”

Pasquale has one final piece of advice for young lawyers hoping to break into the area: it’s crucial to decide whether you will take calls from potential clients at all hours of the day and night, and stick to your decision. He opted to direct clients to his voicemail overnight, and get in touch with them the next morning after they have received up-front help from duty counsel or a private firm. “What you shouldn’t do is burn the candle at both ends and be a trial lawyer, and then be ‘mister emergency lawyer, help everybody who gets arrested and has a bail hearing the next day.’ You can’t do that. You’re going to burn out.”

So you must decide whether you want to do trial work or crisis work, because it’s impossible to do both, says Pasquale. And he notes the importance of cultivating other interests away from the office, both to maintain your sanity and to develop a rapport with clients by talking about common interests outside of their legal troubles.

While there are plenty of examples of lawyers like Pasquale who have rolled with the punches and found their own place in criminal defence law, many students may remain skeptical of the possibility for success, despite an inner urge to pursue this specialty. Those individuals would do well to listen to Schurman’s advice: “If you are interested in a career in criminal defence work, believe in yourself, be determined, and go out and seek as much information as you can as to what opportunities might be available,” she says. “Don’t give up before you even begin, because opportunities are out there, and the defence bar truly needs people who have that kind of passion and determination.

“I have a very strong belief that in order to be happy with our work in this world you’ve got to really follow the desire to do something that you really want to do.”

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