Being a modern day criminal defense attorney involves a much larger scope of duties and responsibilities than is commonly portrayed in movies or television. Navigating the complexities of the justice system, providing competent representation of the client’ interests, while keeping the ethical mandates of the legal profession can be a delicate balancing act of competing, and often contradictory interests. Even beyond the courtroom, a counselor provides emotional support during, what is probably, one of the most difficult times an individual can face.
In preparing a case, a criminal defense attorney has to first identify what the client is being charged with and what the potential penalties may be. Misdemeanors generally involve less serious crimes; however, some higher-level misdemeanors still carry significant penalties in terms of fines or jail time. Felonies, such as murder, kidnapping, and rape (usually the kind featured in the media and on the screen) are the more serious acts and have greater punishments attached to them. Regardless of the severity, however, a lawyer who undertakes representation is mandated, by professional ethics, to vigorously defend the interests of the client.
Even in cases where there is no dispute that a client has actually committed the criminal act, the criminal defense attorney still has an important role to play in the proceedings. Our legal system is based on the concept of stare decisis (Latin for “stand by things decided”) or, precedent. As a result, what a court rules on in a former case can impact how a latter matter is adjudicated.
By requiring, through vigorous representation, that the prosecution proves each and every element of its case (especially when guilt is not in issues), a defendant’s lawyer is helping to ensure that no questionable precedents will be set for future cases where the question of legal responsibility might not be so clear cut; put another way, making certain that all the rules are followed in obvious cases prevents bad law from being applied to the less obvious situations.
In most state codes of professional ethics, the terms “counselor” and “advocate” are used to describe the role of a criminal defense attorney. This refers to the lawyer’s roles outside of the courtroom. Offering moral support, advising on economic and other social factors, and other situations beyond the boundaries of the charges being faced, is another important factor in representation of a defendant facing a judicial proceeding. Knowing that confidences are protected by the attorney-client privilege makes communications between the lawyer and party represented much easier.
The tasks that the criminal defense attorney faces may be challenging and, in some situations, unpopular. Yet, as mandated by the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution:
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial… and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”