Diversity Career Stories Law

Lead criminal attorney uses military discipline to dominate the courtroom

In this career interview with a lead criminal attorney, he shares how his years of experience in the military helped prepare him for the discipline he needed to be a successful criminal lawyer. He takes his responsibility seriously, and realizes that one misstep on his part could make the difference between a man being convicted, or acquitted.

My job title is lead criminal attorney for the firm, Yetsen, Opal, and Hamilton. The industry that I work in is criminal and corporate law (if you frequent news reports, you would perhaps not be surprised at how often these two disciplines overlap). I have 20 years of experience in the field as an attorney, with a full 16 of those years coming at this firm.

I would describe what I do as leading a group of attorneys and assistants in efforts to best defend our clients against litigation against them. I have a team of four attorneys that report directly to me. I am responsible for representing the firm in our lead criminal cases. This entails putting together the research that is compiled, performing final review for the perspective of our cases before they go to trial, and presenting the arguments that we have compiled in a convincing way. The common misunderstanding that I want to clear up is that being a criminal attorney is like something that you would see on Law & Order. There is very little screaming inside of the courtroom, witnesses do not break down crying on the stand in tearful confessions, and there are not cameras waiting outside for me necessarily after every verdict. What is much more prevalent inside of the courtroom is a sense of decorum and attention to detail. To win a case, I must be the most disciplined person in the courtroom, a practice that my military service definitely instilled. This is why I continue to serve part time even as I continue to practice as an attorney.

I would definitely rate my job satisfaction at a full 10 out of 10. My firm is one of the best in the state, I am constantly challenged, and I have a sense of responsibility. I was looking for a job where I could help people and practice the disciplines that I learned serving in the Armed Forces, and being an attorney was an excellent choice for me.

This job does move my heart, because it is about attention to detail. In the Armed Forces, it is all about detail. The reason that the drill sergeants are so hard on you at the beginning of your military service, to get everything just so, is because one misstep can mean death in the field. Well in the high stakes world of corporate and criminal law, one false misstep, one missed detail is the difference between my client paying millions or not or giving up his freedom or not. This is a great challenge, but one that I love.

Something unique that readers should know about me is that I come from a military family. My grandfather served the US Army in WWI, my father in WWII. I grew up knowing what it meant to sacrifice and serve for a greater cause.

I got started in this line of work after a lot of people noticed that I was very detailed and always seemed to get into friendly arguments, which I usually won. Many people said that I should try the law. I looked into it and got hooked, went to school and never looked back.

I learned the hard way that there is always another perspective. People always call lawyers liars, which is untrue. It is against our code of ethics to defend someone that we know to be guilty. However, we usually deal with cases in which no one saw what happened, or there are different accounts. Right and wrong many times does not exist. The law is not “good guys versus bad guys,” ever. Whoever controls the perspective wins the day. The day that this occurred to me was when I was working my ninth or tenth case there. I asked one of the senior lawyers if I was ever going to work a case where one side was clearly wrong and the other side clearly right. He just laughed at me and asked, “At what time have you ever been completely pure or purely evil? Even good things that you do are for a selfish purpose. The world is like you.”

The single most important thing that I have learned about the working world is that you must believe in yourself. If you do not believe your perspective, then someone else’s perspective will take over. There must always be a primary observer at all times. Is the primary observer in your life you, or are your perspectives taken from other people? They taught us this in the Army. The second you die is the second that your enemy’s perspective triumphs over your own perspective of yourself.

The strangest thing that has happened to me in this job was a robber suing an insurance company after trying to rob it and slipping on the wet floor. He won.

I get up and go to work each day to make sure that the people trying to do good in this world have a defense, and that the people trying to do bad have one as well, so that when they are before God, they can never say that they did not have a point in which they were presented with their actions.

The challenges I face are laziness from my attorneys. I am the only one from the armed forces and they hate how strict I am. I am always the last to leave the office.

My job stress goes up and down depending on the caseload. It is never stress free. My work life balance is off, admittedly. I work all the time.

The salary range for a position like mine is $120K – 500K/yr. I don’t make enough, I like the finer things in life.

To be a lawyer, you must have the ability to assess facts and take action, just like in the armed forces. You are taught to serve first so that you can lead yourself. You must have that ability. And you must pass the bar, of course.

I would tell any friend considering this line of work to be ready to give up a lot of sleep.

In five years, if I could write my own ticket, I would be a full partner in the firm.