Writing a story about lawyers? Here are 19 questions I asked a public defender for my screenplay.
Updated: Feb 27
Hello! My name is Kamali and I'm an independent filmmaker. I write, direct, and edit my own films. I started writing a new script and one of my main character's is a lawyer. I did research and watched lawyer shows, but I still found it difficult to find answers to certain questions. I went to the ask_lawyers subreddit on Reddit where they have to provide information to verify that they are a lawyer to be able to answer questions. I asked questions and got pretty good answers. One awesome guy even let me interview him. I wanted to pay it forward to help other writers have information they may need all in one place. I hope the interview below helps you. Good luck fellow writers!
What’s day to day life like as a lawyer?
My job as a public defender is chaotic. I don't have to worry about generating business. It's comparable to being an emergency room doctor on some days, like when I do case intake and bail arguments for new clients, and on other days it's comparable to being a cancer doctor who keeps patients for years, working slowly on their case as they progress through treatment (or in my situation, representation on their legal case).
I have four types of days: Office days, where I can prepare for future hearings and trials. Arraignments, where I meet 20 new clients, many of whom are in jail and need a bail argument to be made that same day. Pretrial conference hearing days, where I'm in court (on Zoom or in person) giving a judge an update on where we are at with a case, updating a client on the evidence against them and their legal options, etc. And the fourth type is trials, which are less of a "day" and more of a week-or-more-long block of time.
On office days, I answer the phone on average 10 times a day. I might respond to 30 to 50 emails. If I had it my way, I'd get no calls and emails, leaving me in peace to do what I need to be doing: watching body camera footage, reading police reports, and writing motions challenging some aspect of a case. Realistic practice is more complicated, because clients, prosecutors and judges often need updates, create problems, or start arguments over stuff I have no choice but to handle when they come up.
How many hours do you work?
40 to 50 most weeks. On trial weeks, if a case ends up going to trial, I'll work from 8am to midnight until the trial is finished. All those phone calls and emails that come in every day? I'm handling those after 5pm when the trial is done for the day, and then after dinner I'm prepping the next day's stuff on the trial.
On average, I'm in an actual trial anywhere from once a month to once every 4-5 months. It really ebbs and flows. Twice a month, I have 5 trials set on a Monday. Those two weeks are blocked off from other hearings so that I can handle a trial. Most of the time, the cases settle on that Monday. Other times I will have several trials prepped and ready to go, and the client won't settle, but the courtroom assigns out their 20 trials for the week on other cases that are not mine, so my cases get bumped and I get to have some breathing time at the office for the week.
Do you work on the weekends?
Rarely. When I have a big trial case on Monday, like a murder or crim sex, I will sometimes go in on Sundays. I usually don't have to.
Why did you want to be a criminal defense lawyer? Do you enjoy it? I like trial advocacy. I did a lot of mock trial in HS, college and law school. I enjoy it in real life too, to no surprise. I like telling a story to a captive audience (the jury) and I like trying to outsmart cops and other witnesses on the witness stand. It's like a more adrenaline fueled combination of chess and poker all at the same time. What I don't enjoy as much anymore are the real world stakes. I don't like having power over another human being, my client. I don't like the power to screw up and seriously hurt them and their family.
Does everyone have their own office?
In my office yes. We're blessed with relatively good funding.
How many cases do you have at once?
Bear in mind public defender offices are different from private criminal defense firms, where the caseloads will be much lower. I have approximately 80 serious felony clients at once. In a year, I process probably 120 of these clients to conclusion.
Does all the work happen in the office?
Not so much with work-from-home these days. But before Covid, I did all work in the office except for trials, where I take the work home with me in the middle of a trial.
In private practice, there is a much bigger expectation that attorneys will be available at practically all hours. In corporate law settings in particular, you will be reprimanded if you fail to answer a call that comes in during the middle of the night. In private criminal defense, the culture is more relaxed. Attorneys will be expected to work at home after hours if they're helping with a big case, though.
Does the whole firm work together on particular cases?
Mine does not because my "firm" is a government office that has 100+ lawyers in it. We will often brainstorm a case with our colleagues. Back in the pre-Covid days, that meant meeting over lunch or sometime in a room with a whiteboard and just hashing out a case. Nowadays we're all part of large chatrooms on our office network and we chat back and forth, bitching and moaning, whining, joking and bouncing ideas off of each other constantly.
What’s everyone’s job when that happens?
The biggest sort of team we have that is dedicated to a single case would be 2 lawyers, who split the duties of the trial between themselves plus a dedicated case investigator, who will go out into the field, interview witnesses, line up witnesses to come in during trial, and do investigatory research for things like a different person's criminal record, police files, etc. If needed we also get dedicated case social workers for drafting mitigation reports--memos that go to the judge, explaining why our client deserves a break on a sentence for reasons having to do with their background, mental health, addiction status, homelessness, prior record, etc etc. The social workers also help us immensely with clients who need help with setting up services for housing, drug treatment, mental health care.
Private practice will be similar. On rink-a-dink garden variety cases, they will not make lawyers double up on cases. They will more commonly do that on serious cases like homicides and big sex and drug cases, same as we do at the PD office. If they're defending a celebrity, though, then all bets are off -- they might hire as many lawyers for the legal team on that case as the rich client demands of them, because they want to keep the checks flowing from that client. Private law offices also don't tend to have social workers on staff because most of their clients are wealthy enough to afford a lawyer, which means they probably are not dysfunctional that they need the same degree help as many of my clients.
How long does it take to prepare before going to trial?
Really, really depends on the type of case. On a misdemeanor DUI, I can prep that case in 2-3 hours. Takes ten minutes to read the police report, two hours to watch the body camera footage, and half an hour to ask the client about his defense. If it's not something requiring me to interview other witnesses in the field or challenge anything wrong the police did, I won't even write anything. I'll just set the case for trial and I'll write my opening statement the morning that the trial begins. After enough years, that ability becomes more intuitive. I can devote more or less that same level of attention to many of my domestic assault, DUI, theft, and drug possession cases.
On a domestic (including felony level severity domestics), we often don't get anything more than a 5-page police report, an hour of body cam, a 911 call recording, and some hospital paperwork from the victim. Combined it's 20 pages of material total. Nobody aside from the victim and defendant observed the incident. The victim says he smacked her, and she has a swollen lip when police show up, and she cried during the 911 recording. That's all the evidence in the case. My client tells me "I didn't do that. She's lying." Or he'll say, "It was self-defense." And to both, I say, "OK. We'll set it for trial." And unless there's something more we need to do, like find an independent witness who saw the fight, or track down a video, that's all the work I really have to do. I set it for a trial, and 50% of the time the victim won't even show up for trial and the case is dismissed. The other 50% of the time ends in a combination of my client rolling the dice at trial or folding at the last minute when his girlfriend shows up in person to testify against him.
Driver without a license
When I have a chronic driver-without-a-license client, that client might pick up as many as 20+ different cases for driving without a license. How much time do I devote studying the facts to develop a legal defense on each case? Probably five minutes -- just enough time to read the one-page police report to know he's dead to rights on virtually all of them. But I'm working with that client in other ways. I'm trying to get him into a driving class; I'm trying to get him set up with a debt restructuring nonprofit that will help clean up all of his traffic debt so he can legally drive again; and I'm negotiating additional court appearances with the prosecutor so we can work out a timeline for when my client will b wrapped up with this garbage and will be eligible for a better deal on all of his cases that won't re-revoke his license all over again.
Drug cases are often like that. If my client has been stopped 2+ times in a car and found to have meth in his pocket every single time, popped 2+ times for stealing a car, and caught 2+ times shoplifting Louis Vuitton purses to fund his drug habit, all in the last 4 months.... Well, sorry, but I'm only giving minimal attention to the factual defense on those cases, unless he really presses me to try one of them in front of a jury. Most of my time with that client is social-workey stuff, helping him get into treatment, and negotiating an offer with the prosecutor that won't send that client to prison.
Armed robberies etc.
And then there are the cases with heavy trial lifting. Armed robberies, crim sexes, domestic assaults with plausible defenses. These can easily stretch into 20+ hours on a case. I need to watch the body camera footage of the responding officers who interviewed eight different witnesses. I need to look at the photographs of the injuries. I need to watch the 2-hour-long psychological forensic interview done by the sexual assault specialist. I need to look at the ballistics reports. I need to read the 50-page DNA report and refer it out to our defense DNA specialists for a second-hand review. I need to write a 20-page brief challenging the search warrant where the cops entered my client's house and found drugs in his bedroom. I need to watch the 3-hour-long interview of the informant witness who's ratting on my client and telling the cops he's the shooter. I need to work with an investigator to track down the owner of that car that's on video and see why it was lurking near the scene of the shooting a minute before it happened. I need to read 300 pages of police reports, which trickle in 10 pages at a time piecemeal over the course of months. And I need to visit my client in jail half a dozen times, 1-2 times a month or more, on an ongoing basis. Or if he's out of custody, I need to regularly call him to give him the news on the new evidence that came in. It all varies dramatically from case to case. Hidden time component
There's also a hidden time component to all of these cases: Building trust. Even though I can read a police report in five minutes and figure out the important parts, my client can't do that. Even though I can speed through a 2-hour body camera recording and find the 30-second part that matters, where my client fails to turn on his turn signal, my client can't. Clients, especially public defense clients, usually do not trust their lawyers to be on their side, so that means I need to earn that trust. I earn the trust by talking to clients. I talk to them, a lot. And I listen to them, a lot. A mentally unwell client will call me on the phone, and I can see from the 952 area code that it's that one client who likes to call and ramble. Well, so be it. I kick back, turn the phone on speaker mode, and let him rant at me for 10 minutes about how unfair the system is and how it's so unfair that the prosecutors are out to get him. I'll just shoot the shit with him and talk about life, and if the call stretches into an hour, well, at least that probably saves me several more hours down the road when that client actually likes me enough to trust what I have to say when I advise him to take a good deal later on.
Every case is different, of course. I've had some DUI cases become massively complicated, with many, many hours of work involved. Sometimes a drug possession case becomes 100 hours of work because there was a bad search warrant involved, and the prosecutor is playing dirty with hiding evidence, and I need to interview other witnesses, and I need to research a codefendant who really owned the drugs that my client is accused of possessing, and blah blah blah, it can go on for a while. The law of averages is a life-saver, though. On about half my cases, I can rest easily knowing that there is minimal work required. It's the other half that can balloon in size out of nowhere.
What does the last week before the trial consist of?
Can really depend. Ideally you have little to do the week before because you've already done everything that needs doing. On the rink-a-dink cases, I finalized prep for that case months ago when it was set for trial. All I needed to do was file a 2-sentence-long memo to the court stating that my client has elected to use the defense of self-defense at trial. Done.
On murders and big crim sexes though, I'd be lying if I told you we weren't in panic mode the week before, because we usually are. We are re-reading the police reports, re-watching important body camera and surveillance footage, and we're talking to the client a lot, honing our defense, revisiting what he plans to testify about if he does testify, orienting him for how a trial works, etc. Most of this will happen the weekend before the trial starts and throughout the following week while we do jury selection.
In an even less ideal situation, we just got new evidence dumped on us, like a batch of a hundred jail calls, ten of which are very damning and record the client contradicting the defense we intended to use at trial. Jail calls always come in at the last minute where I work. It's because the prosecutors here don't listen to the jail calls until jury selection starts, since there are usually thousands of call recordings to listen to. They will often sic a sheriff's deputy on this task at the last minute, and then halfway through trial we'll get the bad news.
How is it announced if the firm is looking for a new partner within their firm?
In corporate law, where the firms have hundreds of lawyers, they have regular partnership hiring schedules. The expectation is that you start at the firm out of law school and work there for 7 years. If you are partner material, they notify everyone at some point during their 7th year. Most associates will have quit that particular firm and lateraled into a different office several times during their 7 years, but the corporate firm still treats them all as a seventh-year associate for partnership seniority purposes.
Outside of that lockstep model, everyone else is different. Most criminal defense firms have between 1 and 4 lawyers. There might be just one partner, or everyone there might be a partner. At a bigger crim defense firm, probably half the lawyers are partners that have been working there 5+ years.
What technology do you wish existed that would make your job easier?
Better evidence / discovery technology for uploading documents and video. Better note-taking software that integrates everything I do on Outlook, Word and Adobe with my internal file servers, so that I don't have to be opening 4-5 different programs all at once and keep them running constantly.
I have 5+ internet browser windows, email, evidence and case file portal, court records databases (2 of them, for the same court system!), my internal office instant message service, and several programs I'm forgetting, all open at once, at all times I am working. When my computer freezes, or when my compute restarts for a software update, or when the network fails on one of my programs, I have a very bad day. When programs are slow and just won't load the damn documents that they are supposed to load within 10 seconds of clicking on something or typing in a case number, I start to get really mad. When one of these services is just wholesale down, I flip my lid. The job isn't possible to do without all of these different applications all running at once.
Oh, and I need a password manager to handle 10 different government databases (court records, DMV records, jail and prison records, treatment office communication), and I have passwords for internal login crap, human resources sites, training sites, the state bar's websites, etc etc etc... just, effing ugh. I want to be able to open my computer and access everything without needing to type in a password, without needing to wait for a program to load, and without needing to learn 20 different software programs.
I haven't touched video codecs yet. They are the worst. Every different law enforcement agency I have encountered, and every different store, government office building, and transit system, all use different security software and surveillance recording software for their videos. I have to install and learn to navigate dozens of different video-viewing programs, many of which look and work at the speed of something made in the goddamned 1990s.
Can a lawyer at the firm represent another lawyer at the firm in the event of a crime?
They can, but that would be ill-advised. For maximum insulation from a potential bar ethics investigation, the firm would farm that out to a different lawyer outside the firm.
Can you show evidence like videos to your colleagues? Yep, whenever we have something shocking, particularly funny, or when we need help on something, we'll often show it to each other, as long as they're on our team where we share confidentiality for the same cases. What’s something funny that’s happened in court or with a client that you might share with a fellow lawyer? Clients who act bonkers, clients who act unreasonably rude. Crazy shit that happens like my domestic violence client coming to trial and telling me the victim "ain't coming" and I ask why and he says "because she's dead," and four hours later I confirm with a police report that indeed, she is dead, and that in fact she was found dead in his house, only to find out, to my shock, that she was not murdered but died of a drug overdose. In hindsight, to a lot of people they'd find that story quite horrifying. To me, at the time, I found it simultaneously unbelievably stupid and funny. Unbelievable in the sense that I could not believe my client was brave enough to tell me that information, and yet still managed to bury the lead that she was found dead at his own house. I could fill a 10,000 page book with stories just like that one. They're one of the best parts about the job. Besides the attorneys who else works in the office? What’s the layout like?
Keeping in mind again that I work for a big government criminal defense office, my office is laid out differently than most small firms will be. We have 5 floors of 20-30 staff on each floor. Two thirds are lawyers, a third are support staff -- secretaries, paralegals, investigators and social workers.
When you’re in court how close can you get to the person on the stand? If I need to hand something to the witness, I can get close enough to touch them. Generally we need to back away to the attorney table when we're not actively handing something to a witness or using a white board / eisel / TV.
Most realistic lawyer show or movie you’ve seen?
For most realistic depiction of corporate law culture, watch Michael Clayton. The opening monologue is chilling. A long-time partner calls his best friend at the firm, has a mental breakdown, and rants about the corrupt, disgusting workaholism of big corporate law, illustrating the soulessness that has driven him into suicidal ideation. The quiet pans of a drab corporate law office at night capture the empty feeling of meaningless and wasted life, slaving one's prime away working for $90 an hour for a partner that makes $500 an hour on your hard work, 80+ hours a week, forever. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Vi4z_BxrfA
The most realistic courtroom drama movie is My Cousin Vinny. It is a slapstick comedy, but it was co-written by a practicing trial lawyer. It very hilariously demonstrates some actually pretty realistic pre-trial procedural rules and customs, and it nails the common techniques taught about trial advocacy itself. Most trial lawyers love it. For my part, I've watched it enough that I've probably memorized its lines.