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Vignettes

All of the names and some of the details have been changed, but you get the point. 

Ellen thought she had it made, getting a job with a white-shoe firm right out of law school.  Then Big Law took it in the shorts, and suddenly Ellen was on the street with a $1700-a-month tab on a student loan staring her in the face.  She always kind of liked criminal law, or at least thought she did, so she gets on the assignment list -- you've got to sit second-chair through two trials -- and hustles for assignments.  Not just dropping off a card for the judge in the arraignment room, but hitting up the bailiffs for probation violation hearings.  It's tough; criminal defense, at least in this town, is a Boy's Club, and an older Boy's Club at that.  She does manage to get some, and had her first jury trial six months ago.  She won.  She'd gone out to the scene, gone out to interview witnesses, went over to see her client in the jail every week, researched the law, prepped for the voir dire and cross of the State's key witness...  That's a lot of work, and she'd blown through the $500 cap a month before trial.  There's no substitute for experience in criminal law - she'd almost made a critical mistake by putting her client on the stand, but some older lawyers talked her out of it.  But dint of hard work can cover up for a lot of errors.  She enjoyed doing the work, and it's not like she had anything else to do.

Scott is going places.  His dream has always been to be top-notch criminal defense lawyer, and you can tell that he has the skills:  the charm, the smarts, the good looks, the voice.  He had a much easier time getting assignments than Ellen did, and he also works the cases hard and gets good results.  After all, Scott's looking to build his reputation, and a win in a big assigned case is worth as much as a win in a retained case.  Every time he gets an assignment, he wishes it were his last, and that he could get off the list and get on with the business making the kind of money that a top-notch criminal defense lawyer makes.

Mark used to live in the shadow of his father, one of the top criminal lawyers in Ohio in his day, but that day was a while back, and Mark's been able to carve out an identity of his own.  Criminal law is in some people's blood, and Mark definitely got the genetic code for that.  He may not have the book smarts, but he's got street smarts, along with good people skills.  That's so important.  So much of criminal defense -- so much of being a lawyer -- is the ability to make quick and accurate judgments about people -- judges, prosecutors, clients, witnesses, jurors.  Even deputies:  knowing one of their names might mean the difference between him taking you to the holding cell to see your client and coming to get you ten minutes later like you told him to, or you and your client spending twenty minutes after that staring at each other.  Mark likes what he does, and he's reasonably good at it.  Considering what the county pays him on assignments, it's getting several times a return on its investment.

Fred is a big, friendly guy, always quick with a greeting and a smile.  You see him in the courthouse a lot, because he's always got a case there.  Often, they're assigned cases.  Fred got about $20,000 in assigned fees last year, which paid the rent and a few other bills.  This is an important part of Fred's business model, and he treats it accordingly.  He takes only 4th and 5th degree felonies -- none of that messy stuff with guns and blood.  For that matter, he wouldn't qualify for the major felony list anyway.  He hasn't tried a case in six years, and didn't much care for the experience.  Besides, spending twenty hours on a case where you're only getting paid for spending ten is not part of that business model.  If a case looks like it's going to trial, Fred files a motion to withdraw, and the client's generally not too unhappy with that result. 

George is a plodder.  Most of his income comes from assigned criminal cases, because he lacks the personal and legal skills to attract much in the way of retained clients.  He knows the basic law, simply because he's been doing it for a long time, and has a rudimentary grasp of procedure and evidence.  He can provide competent representation for simple low-level cases, but you really wouldn't want him handling anything more than that.

Dan's been doing criminal law for a long time, and he's on the short list of the top trial lawyers in Cleveland.  He still handles assigned cases, maybe fifteen a year, but rarely anything less than a murder or a first-degree felony.  He does it because he really enjoys criminal law, and it keeps him sharp.  If you're a defendant, winding up with Dan as your assigned counsel is sort of like finding out that your blind date is Scarlett Johansson.

An assigned counsel system will attract all those people.  Whether they have a place in it is something we'll talk about tomorrow.

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