The chance for lots of publicity attracts some of the best and some of the worst lawyers to high profile cases, especially criminal cases. Defending a case where the defendant and his family have little or no money to pay the abnormally high fees for such cases means the lawyer’s got two reasons for taking on the case: (1) he or she will always claim publicly that they aren’t in it for the money, but just doing their civic duty and largely working for free (‘pro bono’); but, (2) the lawyer is almost always in it for the publicity, either purely to feed their ego or, if they have a business plan, it’s based on the hope they can cash in later with more business from which to build a profitable firm or, at least, get on TV more or sell a book. Of course, this can backfire if the lawyer comes off as an incompetent fool.
There are public defenders or private lawyers paid by the state, who are paid a modest salary or per case fee, and who do this sort of thing for a living, but they usually get elbowed out in the high profile cases with publicity potential. Many times that’s a shame because even the worst public defender may have better skills and experience, plus they may actually be looking out more for the defendant. This is where the lawyers who are genuinely trying to perform a public service, often at great personal sacrifice, are to be found.
Just look at Johnnie Cochran, who’s still appearing in commercials thanks to his OJ Simpson bonanza, even though he died years ago, and his sidekick Robert Shapiro (the brains of that operation), who founded LegalZoom. They got lucky, but OJ had assembled a “team” of defense lawyers with competing egos and varying skills that exhausted his resources but managed to confound and eventually exhaust the prosecution and jury.
Criminal defense isn’t rocket science — the rules and law come straight out of the book, change slowly and predictably, and it doesn’t take much legal smarts to figure out and execute the usual tactical manipulations. This is currently on display in the Florida trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, which got off to a rocky start with the opening statement of defense lawyer Don West:
… Don West, Zimmerman’s defense counsel, started with a tale about his own upbringing that drew an objection from the prosecution, which the presiding judge, Debra Nelson, sustained. [So he's already committing the first mistake of the bad lawyer: Thinking that he's the center of attention at his client's trial.] Thus rerouted, West tried a novel opening approach.
After telling the jury not to hold his own humor against his client [If he knew enough to warn the jury in this absurd way, he should have known to shut up, but it's still all about him], he offered them this:
George Zimmerman who?
Ah, good. You’re on the jury.
West apologized for the gag later, but told the courtroom he suspected the problem was in the delivery [No, it's not only a bad joke from an antiquated genre, but it's an insult to the jury. What relevant purpose would this nonsense serve, under any theory?] …
By the end of his comments, he’d advanced the intriguing [well, 'intriguing' only in the sense that it's laughably bad] legal theory that a man walking down the street is not unarmed if that street is paved. Though Martin was not actually holding a weapon, West argued, he might as well have had a brick in his hand, given his alleged slamming of Zimmerman’s head on the sidewalk. [And there's no Second Amendment right to bear sidewalk... you can see where this is going.]
New Yorker story: George Zimmerman’s Trial Begins, with a Knock-Knock Joke
This field attracts lawyers with all sorts of personal agendas, especially prosecutors with political ambitions, frustrated actors or class clowns who want the attention they get from hamming it up in court and living the “mob” or “drug” lawyer lifestyle, and journeyman lawyers who want to make an easy if modest living, avoiding hard work by pleading their clients guilty (plead ‘em guilty practice) after going through the usual motions. There aren’t any criminal defense lawyers representing only innocent, wealthy people.
Mr. West apparently worked as a public defender, but he also likes to dabble in the high profile case. By local standards, he appears to be better than average and he certainly should have plenty of experience. But he’s a deer caught in the publicity headlights, playing not to the jury — in fact he’s apparently oblivious to them — but to the camera and the outside world. Some lawyers are doing a poor imitation of Perry Mason, but real courts, judges, juries, and witnesses don’t have the advantage Perry Mason always had: Perry Mason’s a fictional character whose creator wrote all the stories, and he still lost a case. Mr. West doesn’t have that advantage.
In checking out his resume, I also noticed that he’s part of the Super Duper Best™ club, he’s identified with some of the marketing and survey nonsense using misleading labels and meaningless for-profit schemes to make the public believe that the lawyers who adopt these faux titles are better than other lawyers. As this example illustrates, they are not.
Here’s a press report that bit hard on these faux credentials:
He has been selected as one of the state’s Super Lawyers (by the magazine of the same title) four of the last seven years. [OK, it's not really a published news magazine -- it's a PR vehicle and "Super Lawyers" is a trademark, not a title -- nor is there any 'state' involvement.] … Mr West has served as the head of such groups like [sic] the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers….
International Story: Who is Don West: George Zimmerman’s ‘knock knock joke’ lawyer
This is certainly, in my estimation, typical for too many other lawyers calling themselves “Super,” which is why they are not lowercase ‘super’ lawyers at all. Sometimes this sort of weird behavior is caused by insecurity or panic — surely he didn’t rehearse this nonsense. Maybe West will settle down and ignore the camera.
For Clients: Maybe you can afford or think you want a prima donna lawyer, but they are not only expensive. Clients are supposed to come first and the lawyer’s self-interest isn’t supposed to matter, at all. Protecting their reputation may distract them from doing what’s best for you. Their agenda isn’t necessarily yours. If they lose, they’ll blame everyone but themselves, including you. And they may not be any better than the cheapest public defender in town.