New York City: If You Can Make it Here, You Can Make it Anywhere" - From NYC to Michigan Criminal Defense
Prior to entering private practice as a criminal defense lawyer, I spent years as a prosecutor in both New York City and Michigan. When I graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2007, I wanted to get immediate experience in the courtroom.
Most graduates of top-ten law schools go off and make the big bucks at major law firms around the country. They sit in back offices working on cases assigned to them by a partner, and once all the grunt work is done, it's handed off to the partner to get praise and get paid by the client.
If you work thousands of hours a year, abandon your family for long enough and produce a good enough work product for 8-10 years, then you get to play partner and hand off work to young lawyers. This seemed like a death sentence to me, and I was not interested in being paid to sit in a dark room and be a paper pusher who got zero credit other than a nice paycheck. Was that really what being a lawyer is all about?
I grew up in New York City and watched Law & Order on a regular basis. My idea of being a lawyer was Jack McCoy prosecuting the big cases, and always winning in the end. There would be ups and down, but hard work, persistence and the truth would prevail.
I never thought I would be a lifer as a prosecutor, but I recognized the unique hands on, front lines experience offered by the position. In New York City, there are literally millions of criminal cases charged each year, and well someone has to work on them. Due to case volume, you get a lot of responsibility and not a ton of oversight or help on day one - it's sink or swim.
I worked at the Brooklyn DA's Office on Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn where we had over a thousand prosecutors; we weren't paid like most lawyers at the big firms, but we were paid in patience, experience and opportunity.
We were handed 100's of files each day, told to go to a courtroom and deal with 20-30 experienced criminal lawyers trying to trick you, and push you in the direction they wanted the case to go. The judge didn't care that you had no idea what you were doing. The phone would be ringing all day about my other cases in different courtrooms while I was trying to focus on what the other lawyers and judge were trying to tell me in my courtroom. It was stressful, I made mistakes, and I was worked hard with little financial reward, but I was getting better each day.
I spent late nights in the Early Case Assessment Bureau (ECAB), working with detectives on extremely serious and emotional cases that JUST happened. Literally speaking to a rape victim within hours of the hour she endured. Going to the hospital to speak to victims who were brutally attacked and injured to get statements. I was on call to go out to scenes of crimes in the middle of the night, and expected to be the law enforcement leader and prosecutor among police officers, detectives and other emergency responders. I would then wake up early and be in court on those 100's of files, expected to be prepared for multiple trials and hearings each day.
I eventually moved to Michigan with my wife, but my work as a prosecutor was not yet done. I decided to join the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office, which was the New York City version of the Manhattan DA's Office. The Brooklyn DA's Office was very much like working in Detroit for Wayne County, but Oakland County was like Manhattan - more resources, more prestige and a different working environment.
I no longer had 100's of cases each day in court, and I was not up late into the night talking to victims of serious crimes, because we had enough resources to spread things out as an office. While I was no longer buried in files and 15 hour days, I now had one thing I never had in my past job; I had the resources and time to work on my craft. I could sit down and really learn, and prepare for hearings and trials. I was able to become a better lawyer by having more time to sharpen my litigation skills.
I came to this second job with a lot of confidence, because I had survived and endured my time as a Brooklyn prosecutor. New York City: If You Can Make it Here, You Can Make it Anywhere very much applied to being a prosecutor in Michigan.
In Michigan, I took many cases to trial, both jury and bench, held high level preliminary examinations on serious felonies, did a ton of motions, hearings and worked on 1000's of unique criminal cases. I was learning a new set of laws, rules and procedure coming to Michigan, but actually got to study and learn my trade.
After spending time as a prosecutor in Michigan, I knew it was time to make a move. I never wanted to be a lifer as a prosecutor, because it was not in my personality to prosecute people all of my life. People who commit crimes deserve to be punished, but as a prosecutor you never really learn the backstory or the source of the offense. As a prosecutor you just see a name, a charge and assume "oh that's a criminal, I must prosecute and do my job".
I was also NOT impressed with most criminal attorneys in Michigan - they were simply acting like the opposite of a prosecutor, which seems like it's the role to play, but it's not. As a prosecutor you have a law to prosecute on and facts to use to accomplish that task - little emotion gets in the way of the job. Most defense lawyers believe their role is to simply resist and fight those facts as if they are made up or wrong without humanizing the case. If the criminal lawyer isn't going to humanize the defendant, then who is going to do that? Nobody.
Having played both roles, I can comfortably say 99 percent of people who are charged are at least a little bit guilty. Maybe a prosecutor can't meet their burden and there is not enough evidence to convict on, or there is a technicality to prevent prosecution, but the facts and charges are not made up or completely wrong. Defense lawyers don't quite understand that it's OK to have a guilty client, and it's ok to try to work with the prosecutor to a compromise for both sides. Does a criminal lawyer really want to pat a drunk driver on the back and say "hey no harm no foul, you're fine, go back out there and act the same??" I don't - I would rather help that person as a first priority. This is just common sense lawyering with the big picture in mind.
Based on my experience as a prosecutor, I decided I wanted to be a different kind of criminal defense lawyer. I had a few goals and six principles to go by:
1. I wanted to work with good people, not "criminals" who commit crimes to hurt people, property or are just evil spirited. I don't work on cases that I am not comfortable with. I don't just assume all people are innocent, so if I am not comfortable with the allegations, I won't take on the case - Michigan has 1000's of lawyers to help this person. I want clients who I believe in and can help.
2. I wanted to actually help my client with whatever brought them to my office; this didn't mean "getting them off" but rather to actually work on the reason why they found themselves charged with a crime. If we can get the case dismissed or win a trial, then that's great, but it's more important to help the client with what lead to the allegations in the first place.
3. Wanted motivated clients who were willing to work hard to change the perception of their case from day one. They might be really guilty, and that was ok. It did not make them a bad person, or someone I wouldn't trust in my own life. People make poor choices, it doesn't make them evil people who can't be trusted going forward.
4. Wanted to use this motivation and proactive work product of my client to work with the prosecutor and judge to create better results than people who just come to court looking to fight the charges just to fight the charges because they are not happy with the options. Lawyers don't have time machines or easy buttons. If you broke the law, you can't change the past, but you control the present and your future.
5. Wanted to leverage my client's out of court performance along with finding enough leverage within the evidence of the case to meet my client's goals without the risk of trial. You need inside and outside leverage to get the best result.
6. Wanted to go to trial on the right cases. Ultimately the client always has the option for trial, but I don't recommend going to trial on a losing case - usually a guilty person with strong evidence against them. If you're innocent then let's go to trial - if you're guilty and the evidence supports it, let's meet your goals in a different way. I don't want to set my client up for failure.
As a criminal defense lawyer, I am very selective in the cases and clients that I take on. Our firm ends up turning down more cases than we take on. Each case and client needs a customized approach, and we develop goals for each case.
My goal for every case is to get to the right result. I want to know my clients goals and put a plan in place to hit every goal. We're aware of the prosecutor and judge and their goals for each case, and we work together to come to the right result.
Some clients go to trial, most work toward resolution, which is hopefully more favorable to the client than it would have been without working with me. This might mean reduction or dismissal of charges, a better more manageable sentence, but most importantly the tools and mindset to go forward a productive and more responsible person for their family, career and life.
DUI Attorney & Former Prosecutor Jonathan Paul