Most lawyers in criminal practice have heard a defendant utter the expression “real lawyer.”
It is used almost exclusively in a derogatory sense by defendants against their public defenders. The only expression more offensive to those lawyers fighting in the trenches is “public pretender.”
Steve Benjamin, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, recently wrote a column asking whether the phrase “real lawyer” has a real meaning that lawyers should embrace. The answer is: Yes, the phrase has meaning, but nothing is accomplished by embracing it.
A real lawyer is not defined by a title but by the quality of the work. A real lawyer is someone who passionately and zealously advocates for clients. A real lawyer is someone who thinks about clients after leaving the office and takes their calls and emails during those inevitable moments of panic and anxiety.
Real lawyers confront inequality, fight for justice and empathize with their clients. Real lawyers represent the accused not to make a fortune, but to make a difference.
A real lawyer is someone who secures the best circumstantially available result for a client. Sometimes that means taking the case to trial or cross-examining an informant. More often, it means knowing how to resolve a case.
A defense attorney must learn the various quirks of certain judges and how to approach certain prosecutors. Does a particular prosecutor appreciate unique legal issues? Does the prosecutor respond more favorably to evidence in mitigation? Because more than 95 percent of cases resolve by way of a plea agreement, the best results often are achieved through these out-of-court interactions.
For those reasons, public defenders regularly secure better results than many private practitioners. Public defenders are the people private attorneys go to when they need to know which judge to substitute on. A public defender’s office possesses more collective knowledge than any other firm, which means private attorneys in unfamiliar counties would be smart to consult with a local public defender.
Throughout Wisconsin, public defenders have been instrumental in creating and expanding specialty courts for drug offenders, domestic violence, drunken driving and veterans. Without the advocacy of “real lawyers,” those courts would fail.
Private practitioners have a duty to disabuse defendants of the notion that there are two types of criminal defense lawyers. We should confront defendants who use “real lawyer” in same way they would make a racist or sexist remark.
A united defense bar, without labels and with healthy interaction and dialogue, surely will result in better representation of those accused of crimes.