Starting a criminal defense practice after Covid

by Jamison Koehler on June 16, 2020
D.C. criminal defense practice - graffiti image

I celebrated the 10th anniversary of my solo practice last November.  I had been planning to post something here to commemorate the occasion.  But I was busy.  And that is the way it should be.  

When my wife and I moved back to D.C. from Philadelphia in 2009, I had hoped to hook up with a criminal defense firm. But no one would hire me.  So I started my own practice. Initially I worked in both D.C. and Virginia.  I limited my practice to D.C. as soon as I was able to.  As I now tell potential clients, I don’t mix in personal injury or family law.  I don’t Maryland or Virginia.  I do criminal defense in D.C.  Period. 

I had no idea what I was doing when I first started.  

Yes, after three years as a public defender on Philly, I knew my way around a courtroom.  I knew how to cross-examine witnesses, introduce evidence, etc. But I did not understand court lingo or procedures.  Each jurisdiction had its own way of doing things. Discovery in Fairfax, for example, was completely different than in Arlington or Alexandria.  And all of the court personnel appeared to be speaking in code.  

So I would visit each courthouse before entering my appearance.  I would sit in on the hearings.  I also asked lots of questions.  Without exception, the lawyers who practiced there regularly were welcoming and helpful.  They told me what I needed to know. 

The changes now being effected in response to the pandemic — specifically the trend to move many hearings on-line– have me wondering how new lawyers will figure out what to do. Yes, the hearings will still be public, in theory at least.  But how do you find out about them?  How do you sit in?  Even if you are able to attend, you do not have the opportunity to meet the lawyers who are representing clients at the hearing.  You cannot watch them handle their matter before you are called to the bar of the court. And it is difficult to read the room – the judge, the witness, the prosecutor — from behind a computer screen.  

Everything about the hearings has gotten more complicated.  There is a listserv for the rest of us, and we can exchange information with our friends.  I called up my mentor and pal Noah Clements the other day with a particular question.  I caught him sitting outside the ice cream shop waiting for his daughter.  

But how do you know what to do when you are attempting the navigate the system from the outside?

And then of course there are the social aspects.  It is hard to connect with experienced lawyers who can mentor you.  It is hard to make friends. This is particularly important for a solo practitioner such as myself.  

Because of things I have written on this blog, people often contact me before beginning a criminal defense practice in D.C., and we get together over coffee.  I met at least five of my colleagues now practicing in the District sitting at my regular table at the Firehook café.  If anyone were to call me today, my answer would be very different.  Yes, it is still doable.  It is just a lot harder, particularly when police are no longer making arrests.  

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