Interest in Capital Defense

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beforethelaw

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Interest in Capital Defense

Postby beforethelaw » Sun Apr 09, 2017 7:54 pm

I would guess that there aren't a ton of job openings for capital defense work out there--but this would be a dream job for me. More realistically, I am shooting for a PD job. But, the school that I'll (~95%) be attending has a Capital Defense Clinic. I'm wondering a couple of things:

1. How difficult would it actually be to get a job in capital defense?

2. Would it be worth working at that clinic, or would I be better served just focusing on indigent defense clinics/externships?

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KissMyAxe

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Re: Interest in Capital Defense

Postby KissMyAxe » Sun Apr 09, 2017 8:33 pm

1. I'd going to largely depend on the school, as well as you. You're right, there aren't many jobs focused entirely on capital defense, and those that are can afford to be picky. If you can really sell a history of dedication to PI, then you'll be better off. If you have ties to states where the work is done, you'll have an even better shot. A New Yorker is going to have a tough job finding capital defense work in Alabama, Texas, or Georgia for example. But someone from one of those states will have an easier time. If you want to PM me, I can talk you through my thoughts on how to strengthen your strengths (and about your particular school).

2. Why wouldn't you do a clinic that's work revolves around what you want to do for a career? Seems a no brainer to me. Best to try it out in law school, I know a lot of great law students who decided not to pursue that work because of our own clinic. It can be extremely emotionally taxing. You have to be prepared to put in long hours, get to know your client(s), very possibly believe their innocence (to be successful, defense attorneys need to be able to buy into their clients' stories and them as people), and then possibly see them still sentenced to death. And don't forget, this is a field where getting a client you believe is innocent life in prison without parole is a victory. It's not for everyone, but definitely worth trying out if you're interested. As far as competitive advantage, all the ones you named are PI, so I think they're all par for the course.

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A. Nony Mouse

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Re: Interest in Capital Defense

Postby A. Nony Mouse » Sun Apr 09, 2017 9:02 pm

There are capital defense openings - not tons, but they're out there - but they're not going to go to new attorneys. They're going to go to people who have significant experience in public defense. So go be a PD and work your way to capital defense, but it would make sense to get as much experience pertinent to that as you can along the way, so doing the clinic makes sense. It's not like it won't be valuable experience that looks good to a PD just because you won't start out doing capital defense.

Also, re:
this is a field where getting a client you believe is innocent life in prison without parole is a victory
I'm not sure that in most cases defense attorneys believe their client is innocent so much as they believe their client shouldn't get the death penalty. You can believe your client did it and still believe that 1) the death penalty isn't the right punishment and 2) the government has to prove it fair and square. (Though I agree that it's emotionally different work.)

wubwubwub

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Re: Interest in Capital Defense

Postby wubwubwub » Sun Apr 09, 2017 9:30 pm

Not a capital defender, but worked in capital defense before law school.

1. The jobs are out there. Some capital defense organizations-the EJI/SCHR/ACLU Capital Punishment Project types-are pretty prestige-conscious, but I think most just want to see dedicated interest. Anything you can do to show that interest will help. As with all public defense-type jobs, going anywhere near a prosecutor's office is the kiss of death for your application.
2. Make sure you can handle it before you decide to devote your career to it. I thought I wanted to be a capital defender before I went to law school, but a few years doing the emotionally taxing work disabused me of that notion. I'd highly recommend taking the capital defense clinic/doing a summer internship before you start seeking full time jobs. I'd also recommend reading a few books by/about capital defenders: some good ones include Fighting for Their Lives by Susannah Sheffer, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (if you're interested in capital defense you've probably heard of this), and anything by David Dow. (Also, burnout is real-I know quite a few people who have done it for a few years and then move on to something else. Might be a good idea to think of what that something else might be)
3. If you're interested in doing post-conviction capital defense, as opposed to trial level work, be forewarned that it's very procedural. Classes like civ pro and fed courts will probably give you a better sense of whether you'd like the work than anything specifically crim law related.
4. A lot of biglaw firms do capital cases pro bono, and I know people who have transitioned from biglaw to full-time capital defense by working on capital cases as junior associates and making connections at capital defense organizations. Another route, if you think you'd like to try biglaw and you're at a school where you can get it.

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brinicolec

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Re: Interest in Capital Defense

Postby brinicolec » Mon Apr 10, 2017 11:03 pm

wubwubwub wrote:Not a capital defender, but worked in capital defense before law school.

1. The jobs are out there. Some capital defense organizations-the EJI/SCHR/ACLU Capital Punishment Project types-are pretty prestige-conscious, but I think most just want to see dedicated interest. Anything you can do to show that interest will help. As with all public defense-type jobs, going anywhere near a prosecutor's office is the kiss of death for your application.
2. Make sure you can handle it before you decide to devote your career to it. I thought I wanted to be a capital defender before I went to law school, but a few years doing the emotionally taxing work disabused me of that notion. I'd highly recommend taking the capital defense clinic/doing a summer internship before you start seeking full time jobs. I'd also recommend reading a few books by/about capital defenders: some good ones include Fighting for Their Lives by Susannah Sheffer, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (if you're interested in capital defense you've probably heard of this), and anything by David Dow. (Also, burnout is real-I know quite a few people who have done it for a few years and then move on to something else. Might be a good idea to think of what that something else might be)
3. If you're interested in doing post-conviction capital defense, as opposed to trial level work, be forewarned that it's very procedural. Classes like civ pro and fed courts will probably give you a better sense of whether you'd like the work than anything specifically crim law related.
4. A lot of biglaw firms do capital cases pro bono, and I know people who have transitioned from biglaw to full-time capital defense by working on capital cases as junior associates and making connections at capital defense organizations. Another route, if you think you'd like to try biglaw and you're at a school where you can get it.



Another book that's about capital defense work is The Last Lawyer by John Temple. I believe it primarily focuses on a specific case he worked on.

+180 to Just Mercy, btw. That was a really great book.

Edit: Also, I have a question about transitioning from BL to capital defense -- is it more common/easier for someone to go from private to public or from public to private? I also have an interest in capital defense work but 1) acknowledge that burnout is real and the work is extremely taxing emotionally and 2) am not sure I will want to/be willing to/be able to (b/c LOANS lol) live off of the low salary and am pondering if there is a common path people who do both take.

Civilservant

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Re: Interest in Capital Defense

Postby Civilservant » Tue Apr 11, 2017 7:36 pm

On the appellate side, this is something a well credentialed law grad can get themselves into. There are lots of public interest groups that bring collateral attacks on death penalty cases. On the trial side, there is certainly an experience ladder you have to climb. Also, if you prefer living anywhere but the deep south, the chances of you trying capital cases is low. Some states with very few death penalty cases will barely have a few people who are certified.

If you have an interest in criminal defense, then jump on in, there are far too few career defense attorneys around. I have had the fortune of doing both trials and appeals, but ymmv in terms of the path you wind up on.



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