Are you a criminal defense attorney, or planning to pursue a career in criminal law? Defending those who have been accused of crimes can be thankless, emotionally draining and even vicariously traumatic. But it can also be thrilling to part of the machinery of justice in a high-profile case or help an innocent man or woman prevail in the face of serious charges.
Successful criminal defense attorneys cultivate a specific set of soft skills they can use to protect clients’ rights as they help those clients navigate the legal system. From researching jurors to understanding public opinion and more, here are the skills you can use to become a great criminal defense attorney.
1) They Can Set Aside Their Personal Feelings
It’s true that some people consider criminal defense attorneys to be shady characters, due to the villainous acts their clients are often accused of. But every good criminal defense attorney understands that accused criminals have rights, too, no matter how horrible and heinous their alleged crimes.
Defending someone who is accused of a crime in a court of law isn’t the same as endorsing the criminal act itself. Even in cases where it’s clear that the accused is guilty of the crimes in question, a good criminal defense attorney has a vital role to play in protecting the accused individual’s constitutional rights to due process. That’s why successful criminal defense attorneys are able to set aside their personal feelings about a case or about a client to advocate for that person’s rights.
2) They’ve Perfected the Art of Voir Dire
Voir dire is the art of examining potential jury candidates to try to remove problematic candidates from a jury. As a criminal defense attorney, the better you are at removing jurors who are potentially biased in ways that could threaten your client’s rights, the better you’ll be at protecting those rights. Successful voir dire examinations truly are an art form. You need to question potential jurors in such a way that they reveal biases that could harm your client’s interests or threaten your client’s rights, but at the same time, you don’t want them to reveal biases that the prosecution could find unfavorable — such as a propensity towards anti-police sentiment.
The art of researching jurors doesn’t end once the jury is selected. Successful criminal defense attorneys research jurors’ backgrounds, looking for personal background information that could help them connect with one or more jurors and sway their opinions.
3) They Can Always Relate to Their Clients
You need to earn the trust of the accused to successfully defend them, and to do that, you’re going to have to find a reason to like them — no matter how awful their crimes. This can be hard when the individual is accused of serious crimes that carry sentences of life in prison or even death, but if you’ve taken tip #1 to heart, you’re already working on setting aside your personal feelings. Look for the good in your clients or things you have in common — your case will be the stronger for it.
4) They Know How to Make an Impression
Courts tend to be conservative, and marching in a client in cut-offs, a mullet and a Grateful Dead t-shirt isn’t going to win them any points with the jury or, for that matter, the judge. Successful criminal defense attorneys know how to walk the fine line between making a client look presentable and professional and making them look like someone they are not. Looking nice can be a means of showing respect for those around you, and your case will be stronger if you can manage to communicate that to the client and guide them towards making it happen.
5) They Understand the Power of Public Opinion
Savvy criminal defense attorneys understand that the tide of public opinion can have a huge impact on the outcome of a case. The members of the jury will likely represent that public opinion, no matter how carefully you work to weed out biased jurors. When you’re talking a high-profile case that’s drawn national headlines, understanding what people are saying and thinking about the case is even more important. If you know before you go to court what preconceptions the public may have about your client’s guilt or innocence, or other crucial details of the case, you can better prepare your strategy to dispel and combat misconceptions.
Accused criminals need advocates to protect their due process rights and assist them as they move through the legal system. Effective criminal defense attorneys spend their careers perfecting the soft skills that go into successfully protecting a client’s rights. While you can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, win every case, a career in criminal defense can be exciting, fulfilling and challenging for a creative, dedicated and thoughtful lawyer.