A day in the life of a defence lawyer is about so much more than court

Trial prep, social work and dealing with court procedures that I have no control over are the reality

A day in the life of a defence lawyer is about so much more than court
Michael Spratt

Everyone loves a good underdog fight and courtroom drama, especially Hollywood. Stories about the courtroom exploits of defence lawyers, from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird to Perry Mason and Matlock, have made compelling movies and TV series.

But the courtroom work that provides the drama on the screen is only the tip of the iceberg of a defence lawyer’s job. For every hour we spend litigating in court, we spend countless hours preparing trial files and even more time doing social work.

This type of important work often goes unnoticed and is almost always undervalued.

Defence lawyers are one of the only justice system participants who don’t have financial security – there are no pensions in defence work. And the free work of defence lawyers is often viewed as the grease that keeps the wheels of justice moving.

The sad reality is that across Canada (and the world), it is becoming harder and harder for us to provide our services

Ontario has cruelly slashed legal aid funding, and the situation is even direr in other jurisdictions. Alberta, Quebec and England and Wales have all forced lawyers to take job action over the lack of government engagement, appropriate compensation, and healthy working conditions.

This week I had a rare day out of court. I was planning to spend the whole day preparing for the next day’s trial. As is always the case, the universe had other plans.

So, peek behind the curtain into what a typical day’s trial preparation dockets look like for a criminal defence lawyer:

2:00-2:20: Wake up to a call from the police station — a young Indigenous client has been arrested on new charges. Give legal advice and try to calm down a scared kid.

6:30-8:30: Wake up, check email, empty dishwasher, make school lunches x 3, drink coffee, sort emails, fail at the New York Times Spelling Bee, leave for work.

8:30-9:00: Drive to the office and conduct a counsel pre-trial for a pro-bono client assaulted by a police officer and then charged with assaulting the police officer (the charges will be diverted).

9:00-9:05: Email the bail Crown to discuss their position on the 2:00 am client. Will they consider a release?

9:05-9:25: Attend a judicial pre-trial to get permission to set a trial for a legal aid client. This appearance is the second JPT, so it is unpaid but a necessary hoop to jump through.

9:25-9:35: Fill out a trial setting forms and email the trial coordinator – a necessary unpaid bureaucratic step which needs to be completed before I can set a trial setting meeting to reserve trial dates. I will officially set it for the next time the matter is in remand court.

9:35-10:00: Answer emails and return phone calls.

10:00-10:30: Receive email from Crown. They won’t consent to a release of my 2:00 am client without a residential surety. Run to court to meet with the client in cells to work on a bail plan. No residential surety is available, so I have some work to do.

10:30-11:30: Call multiple organizations to get background information on the 2:00 am client, speak with Indigenous and youth workers, arrange an interview with the John Howard Society Bail Program, and begin to arrange a treatment plan for the client to help facilitate release. Will need to set a bail hearing.

11:30-12:30: Speak with a rights advisor from the hospital about a homeless patient who wants to contest their involuntary admission. Call and speak with the client, provide them with legal options, and assure them that I will find a way to help. Email the rights advisor and hospital, and leave a message for the patient’s family.

12:30-13:00: Accept that I am going to skip lunch. Get a coffee and try reading the last 30 pages of the science fiction novel I have been trying to finish for the previous month.

13:00-13:45: Speak with a youth client in custody. Call the Crown about setting trial dates. Send an email requesting missing disclosure. And then speak with the client’s parents, who are worried about their kid.

13:45-14:30: Answer all the emails and calls I have ignored for the last 3 hours.

14:45-15:00: Call my firm’s email host because the emails stopped working. Fix email problem.

15:00-15:01: Open my trial binder to do final preparations for tomorrow’s trial.

15:01-15:10: Accept a collect client call from an in-custody client who needs some reassurance about his matter and wants to talk about bail.

15:10-15:11: Open my trial binder to do final preparations for tomorrow’s trial.

15:11-15:15: Accept a collect client call from an in-custody client who wants me to call his family to let them know he is ok.

15:15-15:16: Open my trial binder to do final preparations for the trial.

15:16-15:20: Accept a collect client call from an in-custody client who is having problems receiving proper medication from the jail. Email the prison for some answers.

15:20-16:00: Unplug my phone so that I can make the final preparations for tomorrow’s trial. Slowly realize that I am in for a late night of final preparations.

16:00 -17:00: Receive an email from my trial Crown. There are some issues. Call my trial Crown to explore some solutions and maybe open some negotiations. The trial will resolve in a beneficial way for the client, a great outcome that will save court time and significantly reduce my legal aid bill. Now I can use my late-night preparation to work on another file, lucky me.

17:00-18:00: Do some legal aid bills and other administrative work so I can keep the office lights on and my employees paid.

18:00-21:00: Home to make dinner (with my wonderful spouse), read to any children who want to be read to, put feet up and have a beer.

21:00-21:20: Answer call from the police station, give legal advice, call accused’s family to explore a release plan, and write a note for follow up tomorrow.

21:20-23:00: Review disclosure for an upcoming homicide file

23:00-6:30: Sleep

I began to arrange treatment and counselling for a vulnerable Indigenous client, talked a hospital patient off an emotional ledge, and helped a youth’s family navigate the justice system. I received 73 emails, sent 39 emails, and spoke with 10 clients, multiple Crowns, and some terrified family members. I cut a good deal for a client, which saved the court time and cost me money. Most of my work was unpaid, much of it imposed on me by court procedures that I have almost no say or control over.

In other words, it was a typical day at the office.

I could make more money if I refused to accept legal aid or pro bono files. I would have more time too. But I happily take those files; so do most criminal defence lawyers – because if we didn’t, people would suffer.

The public never sees this work. It doesn’t make for good television, but it is our public service.

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