An Interview With Jim Friedman
Do you remember what it was it like to go out on your own as a solo practitioner?
Isn't Criminal Defense and Commercial Litigation an odd Combination?
How does your office differ from other law firms?
You represent criminal clients at both the trial and appellate level. Why do you emphasize both areas?
Why don't you have "success stories" on your website?
Why do you emphasize representing criminal defendants with mental health and addiction issues as part of your criminal practice?
Do you love what you do?
Terrifying at first. The day I opened up shop, I had three small matters and about $1,200.00 in the bank. But I also had the same bills we all have to pay, plus my overhead. It wasn't a pretty site. But people who knew me trusted me and sent me work. It started as a general practice - I took whatever people sent me. The practice grew from there. I'll never forget those people who believed in me early on. They made it possible.
Not at all when you consider my background. After my clerkship in the Bankruptcy Court, I was an associate at different firms working as a bankruptcy attorney and commercial litigator. I started doing criminal work later in my career when I opened my own office. As it turned out, the relatively small number of criminal clients I had in the early days were very satisfied with my services and began to give my name out to other people. Pretty soon, I became a "brand". So what began as a small part of a solo practice just kept growing. My business clients stayed with me as the criminal practice grew.
My professional roots are in commercial work, and I continue to do it because I have always enjoyed it. There is something very satisfying about representing a businessperson who has a plan and vision. I help them achieve their goals, so if they succeed, it means I succeeded. The criminal work requires different skills, presents different challenges, and is exciting for different reasons. Criminal defense attorneys are an important check on the criminal justice system, and function with an eye toward protecting the Constitutional rights of ordinary citizens. It is sometimes hard for people - even other attorneys - to understand what we do, but society as a whole benefits from our work. On a personal level, I think focusing on two different practice areas makes me a more well-rounded attorney, and all of my clients benefit from this.
Law firms used to be built on relationships. The attorney-client relationship was sacred. Conversations between an attorney and a client were not all that different from discussions between close friends or family members. But then everything changed. Law became less of a profession and more of a business, and that's how it is today almost everywhere you go.
I work very hard to manage my office differently. I try to run it the old fashioned way, by focusing on the relationship with the client. It is important to me that my clients know what is happening with their matters, understand why things happen, and remain involved with the process. Given the modern realities of the practice of law, it is not always possible to achieve these goals but I make the effort to come as close as possible. I have to deal with business issues since I make my living doing this, but I chose to earn a living in a service profession. I try to remember that the operative word is "service".
Each area requires different skills. At the trial level, you spend most of your time on your feet in open court, either before a judge or a jury. Presentations are in real time, live and oral, and the focus tends to be more on the facts. Appellate work involves more research and writing. You have more time to work your thoughts and ideas out on paper like an equation, and the focus is on the law. Oral argument before an appellate panel also tends to be more organized than the presentations attorneys typically make before trial courts. As with the interplay between my criminal and commercial work, the need to switch gears between trial and appellate work gives me a broader vision of any legal problem.
Many attorneys play these up for obvious reasons, and I am probably in the minority on this issue. I think it makes clients believe that the attorney will get them a result that is either identical, or at least similar, to a case described in a success story. I just don't share that view. Even if the criminal charges or business issues are the same, every case and client are different. I try to approach each case with a strategy that is tailored to the problem at hand. I see my clients as individuals in their own right, and I treat them accordingly. As to the nature and extent of my prior successes, I can only say that I would not have lasted this long as a lawyer if I did not have my own success stories. New clients keep coming in, and old clients keep coming back. I must be doing something right. I just don't generally sound off about it.
Statistics show that there are an astonishingly large number of defendants in our criminal justice system with a mental health or addiction problem. These people are in the system because of a problem that caused them to engage in criminal behavior. In their cases, the criminal conduct is secondary to the mental health or addiction issue. There is a growing realization in our justice system that these defendants must be handled differently. That explains the expanding use of drug courts, mental health courts, and similar programs. These are specialized courts staffed with trained professionals who address the real problem in addition to the criminal conduct which, relatively speaking, is more of a symptom. Not everyone is eligible for these programs, but you may be able to do something great for your clients who are. Clients with such issues who are not eligible for a specialized court or program must still have their matters addressed in a way that accounts for their personal circumstances to the fullest extent possible.
From an attorney's perspective, these cases are absolutely fascinating because they involve mental health concepts and issues in addition to the legal and factual ones. Handling these cases effectively requires a lot of skill and patience, and you are always learning something new.
I'd be doing something else if I didn't. Life's too short to waste your time working in a field or profession that you don't absolutely love.