Do I Have What It Takes to be a Criminal Lawyer?
This is really the key question that is hard to answer. I can only say that this question is not different about whether you have what it takes to be an actor or a singer or a doctor or any other profession where it is difficult to succeed.
When I was an articling student, I used to think I was a hero for producing a well-written legal memo. When I began working as a criminal lawyer, I realized that legal research was a small component of the work of a criminal trial lawyer. The ability to prepare a strategy, cross-examine a witness, act with instinct in dynamic situations and charm a jury are much more important attributes.
I do not wish to say that these skills cannot be learned because I believe they can. But I believe that these skills should be within your nature. The job of a defence lawyer at trial is so hard that if you are struggling against your nature to cross-examine a witness in a sexual assault case, for example, or make an argument in a case with strong evidence in front of a jury, it will not get any easier. The question that should be asked as you enter criminal law is not whether you have the skills already, but do these skills come reasonably naturally. That is something that needs to be determined before you devote yourself to this crazy and difficult and wonderful role in society called a defence lawyer.
I can remember a moment in my career where I decided that I could do this job for the next fifty years.
I was representing an Aboriginal client in Brantford who was accused of stealing parts from a stolen vehicle. The local lawyers had told me to plead guilty because I was in front of a difficult judge. I ignored their advice and proceeded to cross-examine very pointedly an Aboriginal police officer who arrested my client, but failed to arrest the other two parties in the vicinity of the vehicle (he had had prior experiences with my client and I argued it tainted his identification evidence). When the judge acquitted my client, a group of Aboriginal people sitting in the courtroom came out to talk to me and told me that they had not realized you were allowed to challenge the evidence of police officers because they are always told to plead guilty. Putting aside how this made me feel about the failings of the criminal justice system, it was one of the best moments of my life. Not only because I had helped someone, an Aboriginal male no less, but because I realized that, no matter what happened, I would be a defence lawyer for the rest of my life.