Board-Certified* Criminal Trial Specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy.
When I came up with the concept for “The Criminal Defense Team”, I knew that our firm would initially be mocked by the traditional legal community. No law firm had ever so boldly proclaimed their desired identity. There wasn’t a “Family Law Team” or a “Contract Law Team”. In fact, law firms were always identified by the name of partners in the firm (such as Smith, Jones and Smith, or Farrelly, Drury & Sinfelt, etc…). Who would want to hire a lawyer from a firm that called itself “The Criminal Defense Team?” What did that even mean?
The idea hit me while I was in bed worrying about a particular case, and wishing that I had more people in the firm to bounce ideas off of. More people that I could trust. People that had passion. People that were good human beings. People who were empathetic with fellow human beings accused of crimes. People who were not judgmental. A team of these types of people could really make a difference in the lives of our clients and maybe even change the landscape of what superior criminal defense looked like.
The problem was that most “Law Firms” that handled criminal defense cases were actually not really law firms. If you hired one of the lawyers, let’s say Bill Farrelly from the fictional law firm “Farrelly, Drury & Sinfelt”, you would expect that both Drury and Sinfelt would be equally as excited about fighting for you. However, what I had learned is that these types of “Law Firms” were actually 3 guys working under the same roof, splitting overhead and not caring about each other’s clients. I didn’t want that. I wanted all of our employees to receive a salary. That way, we would all be invested in each other’s cases.
The success of the law firm would depend on the results our clients were receiving and therefore we were all incentivized to help each other out. However, in setting up the business this way, I would have to sacrifice financially in a dramatic way that would affect my family. I didn’t care. My wife was on board. We both knew that this wasn’t about money. It was about obtaining the best results for our clients – again, fellow human beings that deserved the best fight we could give them. That could only be done, in my opinion, by hiring a team and paying everyone a salary.
Back then there were really very few lawyers that I would consider passionate about fighting for their criminally-accused clients. Most seemed to be mailing it in. However, in criminal defense, you can’t mail it in. People’s lives, reputations and freedoms are at stake. I needed to surround myself with people that would inspire me and each other; who would push each other to obtain the best results for our clients. I love the brain-storming component of preparing a defense. The thought of getting a group of hand-picked, talented attorneys together in the same room, throwing ideas on a white board and collectively brainstorming how to pick apart the prosecution’s case…well for me, that was about as exciting as it could get.
Back then, my reputation as a criminal defense attorney had grown, but I didn’t want any client to come to the firm solely because of me. I wanted them to come to the firm because of “The Team”. I wanted every client confident that their best outcome would result from the efforts of our entire team, not just one single lawyer.
When I presented the idea to the 5 people that worked for me back then (two lawyers and three staff members), I told them to be prepared for the mocking. However, I told them that if you can stick with it long enough, we can make great things happen for our clients and for each other. We can become a law firm that is respected…or perhaps even feared by prosecutors.
Just as I predicted, soon after we started marketing ourselves as “The Criminal Defense Team”, prosecutors and others started joking about the firm. “Whose coming from ‘The Team’ to cover this hearing?”, prosecutors would comment while grinning or rolling their eyes. We would simply smile and go about our business.
Behind the scenes we were doing exactly what I had envisioned: brainstorming and debating and establishing the best game plan for our clients. Sometimes the attorneys get into knock-down drag arguments over what they think is the best plan. Often, in the middle of the fray, I will comment: “isn’t this great? We are coming up with a superior strategy. I love it!” Thankfully, because iron sharpens iron, the best plan usually evolves from those discussions. Everyday, our lawyers are walking into each other’s offices wanting to pick each other’s brains. Sometimes we call an all-attorney session to discuss. Sometimes we just grab two or three lawyers. These are often the moments when cases are won. A spark of an idea may alter the entire trajectory of a case. People accused of crimes who simply have one lawyer, maybe even two, working on their cases are just missing out on the synergistic brain-power of our team concept.
Honing our trial skills and creating/implementing new ideas and strategies is also part of the CDT way. Our partners not only mentor our young lawyers, but have been called by state agencies to teach young lawyers across the State of Indiana on how to properly prepare a case for trial and then to actually try that case. Our lawyers are also presenters to Continuing Legal Education Seminars on the topic of criminal law. Having 5 of the 6 board certified criminal law specialists in the State of Indiana causes our lawyers to be in demand.
It didn’t take long before “The Team” was no longer a joke. We were quickly recognized as a team of serious trial lawyers that fight hard for our clients. We now employ many former prosecutors in the firm. Theses former prosecutors tell me that when they were still prosecutors, they hated seeing our name on a file as the attorneys for the accused. They hated it because they knew they were in for a fight by very skilled and passionate lawyers. Hearing that just makes me smile from ear to ear.
Now, all these years later, we have fought for thousands and thousands of fellow human beings accused of crimes, and our track record is sensational. We are often asked: “how in the world did you win that case? Or how did you obtain that unbelievable result? The answer is simple: it’s because we work as a team. Not just any team, but The Team. The Criminal Defense Team.
The Keith J. Case
“I am not leaving your office until you type out a dismissal and get my client out of jail. Not two days from now. Not tomorrow. Now.” These were the words that I shouted to the very experienced chief deputy prosecutor who had finally agreed to dismiss all of my client’s charges, but wouldn’t get around to preparing the paperwork for a few days. I didn’t think about whether it was a good idea to shout at a prosecutor or not. I was more interested in watching my innocent client walk out of the jail where he had been sitting for the prior nine months. Keith J. was accused of molesting his six and seven-year-old stepchildren. He was innocent, but nobody believed in him. He didn’t have a whole lot of money, but the good news for him was that back in those days, I didn’t have a whole lot of clients.
I drove to the jail to meet Keith. He was 24 years old. His eyes swelled with tears as he told me the story of how he ended up in jail. He was facing 100 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
I immediately began my own investigation by interviewing neighbors and family members. Watched the interview tapes of the children over and over and over again. Conducted depositions. I began to piece the case together. It was my belief that these children had been molested…but not by my client. They were protecting the actual molester who was a family member. My client took a polygraph with the state police, but they said that he failed it. I didn’t believe the results. We would have to win at trial. The problem was that I had never tried a case to a jury on my own. At times I thought about trying to talk my client into a plea agreement, but I just couldn’t do it. He was innocent and he needed to see that the system could work.
Two weeks before the trial, I got married and went on my honeymoon. I took the file with me to continue my preparation. My wife, Michelle, learned early in the marriage that my passion for defending all of my clients comes with a heavy price. After I returned from my honeymoon, the prosecutor called me to meet at her office. She told me that although she felt my client was guilty, the evidence might be too weak to take to trial and she would be dismissing charges. Thirty minutes later my client walked out of jail a free man. We hugged. He cried. Then he moved to Kansas City to begin his new life.
In many ways, it was the Keith J. case that laid the groundwork for my career as a criminal defense attorney. It was through his case that I began to understand the need for courage when representing the accused. The easy road is to take a quick plea agreement. The courageous road is to work the case and to take it to trial. Without courage, a criminal defense attorney becomes ineffective, lazy and satisfied with the status quo.