What Does a Criminal Defense Lawyer Do?

What does a criminal defense lawyer do?

To some extent, what a criminal defense lawyer does depends on the attorney that you ask. For example:

  • A defense lawyer ensures that their client’s constitutional rights are protected,
  • A defense lawyer represents criminal clients during guilty pleas,
  • A defense lawyer tries criminal cases to juries,
  • A defense lawyer prepares motions and briefs for presentation to the criminal court, or
  • A defense lawyer represents clients in appeals from criminal convictions.

A criminal defense lawyer may focus their practice exclusively on appellate work, the federal sentencing guidelines in federal criminal court, researching and preparing motions for a law firm’s clients, or trying criminal cases to juries.

Who Do Criminal Defense Lawyers Work For?

First, who does a criminal defense lawyer work for?

It doesn’t matter where a defense attorney’s cases come from – whether the attorney works for a public defender’s office, accepts conflict cases from a public defender’s office, works for appellate defense, handles the criminal cases at a larger firm, or brings in his or her own cases in a small criminal defense law firm, they work for the criminal defense client.

It also doesn’t matter if the fee was $100k or if the attorney accepted the case pro bono.

Every attorney has ethical obligations to their clients that include duties of confidentiality and loyalty, and they must follow their client’s direction and act in their client’s best interests.

What Does a Criminal Defense Lawyer Do Pretrial?

A criminal defense attorney can take on a client’s case at any stage of the proceedings, but the ideal case is one where the client calls before they are charged and before they have made any statements to the police…

From the beginning of any criminal case, many tasks may be required to prepare the case for dismissal or trial, including:

  • Interviewing the client to discover the facts of the case,
  • Keeping the client informed and communicating with the client throughout the representation,
  • Locating and interviewing all potential witnesses for or against their client (using a private investigator when appropriate),
  • Preparing mitigation materials for use in negotiations with the prosecutor, a possible guilty plea, or a possible guilty verdict after trial,
  • Obtaining discovery materials from the prosecution and following up with supplemental discovery requests and motions to compel discovery as needed,
  • Handling bond hearings or filing motions to reduce bond when a client is in jail,
  • Issuing subpoenas or filing motions to compel discovery as needed to obtain evidence for use at trial,
  • Attending pretrial conferences, roster meetings, roll calls, and other court dates,
  • Communicating with the prosecutor or officers to negotiate a dismissal or plea agreement,
  • Preparing opening statement, cross examinations, direct examinations, closing argument, and jury instructions in anticipation of a possible trial,
  • Identifying and researching legal issues in each case,
  • Preparing motions, briefs, or memos for potential issues like suppression of evidence, suppression of statements, or objections at trial,
  • Engaging expert witnesses for consultation and testimony when appropriate,
  • Negotiating plea agreements and sentencing ranges when appropriate, and
  • Representing clients in guilty plea hearings, presenting mitigation materials and witnesses to the court, and arguing for the least possible sentence.

The list could go on, there are different tasks in different types of cases, and each case presents its unique challenges, but you get the idea…

What Does a Criminal Defense Lawyer Do in a Trial?

When a case goes to trial, there is a completely different skill set that is required, and the odds of success at trial are directly related to the amount of pretrial preparation that was done.

There are many tasks that a defense attorney must complete to prepare for each of these stages of a trial, but, in summary, a defense lawyer’s job in a criminal trial consists of:

  • Pretrial motions – motions to exclude evidence or testimony based on the Rules of Evidence or constitutional violations, and motions that are based on the unique facts of each case,
  • Jury qualification and jury selection – although SC lawyers do not usually get attorney-conducted voir dire, we can always submit proposed questions to the trial judge, and we get limited information on each juror before jury selection,
  • Opening statements – the trial lawyer’s first opportunity to tell their client’s story, preview the evidence, and “frame the case” for the jurors,
  • Cross examinations – each witness called by the prosecution is a potential vehicle for telling our client’s story, framing the case, and, depending on the witness’ testimony, cross examination is our opportunity to discredit or enhance the witness’ credibility,
  • Directed verdict – at “halftime,” most defense attorneys will make a motion for directed verdict – if there is insufficient evidence for the jurors to reach a guilty verdict, the trial judge must “direct a verdict” of acquittal,
  • Direct examinations – although the defendant has no obligation to call witnesses or introduce evidence at trial, the defense lawyer must be prepared to call relevant witnesses, including the defendant, and the witnesses must be prepared for both direct examination by the defense and cross examination by the prosecutor,
  • Jury instructions – at the close of the case, the trial judge will “instruct the jury on the law,” and both defense and prosecution will submit proposed jury instructions for the judge to read to the jurors,
  • Jury deliberations – when the jurors are given the case, they retire to the jury room to debate their verdict, often returning with questions for the court as they deliberate, and

What is a Defense Lawyer’s Job?

What is a defense lawyer’s job?

Is it to protect the Bill of Rights? To ensure their client gets a fair trial? To act as a mediator between defendant and prosecutor?

I’ve heard each of those as a description of a defense lawyer’s job, and each of them is true. But, more than anything else, our job is to win our client’s case, using all means that are legally and ethically possible.

I don’t want my client to get a fair trial, for example. I want the trial to be extremely unfair and biased in favor of my client, and I will make that happen if it’s possible.

I don’t represent the Bill of Rights. I use the Bill of Rights to get my client’s case dismissed or to exclude evidence that would be harmful to my client at trial.

There are times when I act as a mediator between my client and the prosecutor, but that’s just one hat that a defense attorney wears sometimes…

What Else Does a Criminal Defense Lawyer Do?

Although we usually think of a criminal defense attorney’s job as representing people charged with crimes through a guilty plea or trial, there are many other jobs that we may have or hats that we might wear, including:

  • Probation revocations – when a person is placed on probation and later is alleged to violate the conditions of their probation, a defense lawyer might be able to help them stay out of jail or mitigate the potential jail sentence if the court revokes their probation,
  • Representation during investigations – the hands-down best time to call your defense lawyer is as soon as you find out you are under investigation – your attorney can talk to investigators on your behalf, prevent charges from being filed against you, prevent you from handing the investigators evidence or statements they will use against you, and arrange for you to turn yourself in and be released on bond if charges are brought against you,
  • Advise clients on the legality of proposed conduct – sometimes, people will retain a criminal defense attorney before they do a thing that might be illegal. An attorney can never advise a client as to how to commit a crime or cover up a crime, but it is acceptable to ask an attorney for advice as to whether potential conduct would be legal so you can avoid breaking the law,
  • Represent victims of crime – it may seem counterintuitive, but 1) crime victims sometimes need representation to answer their questions and give them a voice in the criminal court, and 2) criminal defense lawyers are best suited to fill this role for crime victims,
  • Juvenile criminal defense – when minors are charged with a crime, their cases might be heard in the family court – although their case is in family court, they need a criminal defense lawyer and not a divorce lawyer to represent them,
  • Criminal Appeals – when a person is convicted at trial or if there was an error of law at their plea hearing, your criminal defense attorney can file your notice of appeal and argue your case to the appellate courts, and
  • Post-Conviction Relief (PCR) proceedings – when your attorney was ineffective at trial or plea hearing, you can file a “collateral challenge” to the conviction in Common Pleas court. Although PCR hearings are in the civil court, you need a criminal defense attorney to handle your PCR claim for you, not a car wreck lawyer.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC

Charleston criminal defense lawyer Grant B. Smaldone focuses on criminal defense cases – including everything that we discussed above in this blog post.

If you have been charged with a crime in the Charleston area, call SC criminal defense lawyer Grant B. Smaldone now at (843) 808-2100 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.


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