Criminal defense firms have historically been local, small, and owned by one to three white male law partners. Sometimes they have one named female partner, sometimes they don’t have any at all. If she’s on the sign at all her name is rarely first.
Many of these firms provided local one stop legal shopping. Lawyer Bill would help your son out with a DUI, write your will, and sue your neighbor if you needed. Lawyer Bill did a lot of different things sort of okay, but he didn’t do anything particularly well.
Just as we’ve moved away from seeing the local doctor or getting educated in a schoolhouse, it’s time to reimagine what local criminal defense looks like.
One simple reason that small law firms can, and should, move away from a multidiscipline practice is that we no longer need so many large, expensive books. It’s simple, but I’m serious. Before the dawn of the internet, law firms had to purchase the state code (and various reporters) and update them constantly with pocket parts. (Pocket parts are these arcane updates that issued periodically that attorneys could get via the U.S. Mail and physically stick into a “pocket” flap at the back of whatever dusty tome the “part” was associated with). Kewl.
As it turns out, stocking, staffing, and updating a library was expensive. There wasn’t a great way to maintain just one certain subsection of the library. This, my friend, was a whole system. To access the knowledge you needed for one practice area, you had to carry the whole catalogue. To make money to pay for this monstrosity, Lawyer Bill might have loved criminal law, but he probably needed to write a will or sue a neighbor here and there.
When I was a kid, an encyclopedia salesman came to our front door. (It was rural Vermont in the 1980s, anything went). He showed me these vast books purportedly containing all the knowledge I would need to go to college. If we didn’t buy the books, I probably wouldn’t go to college. So, my parents bought the books.
I did read them from time to time. I liked the geography, geology, and political philosophy sections. The rest… well, I’m sure the spines are still in mint condition in my parents’ stately bookcase. The point is, at a time in the not so distant past, to procure some knowledge you had to pay for a lot more than you would actually ever use. Such was the case with encyclopedias and books required for legal research.
Upon closer inspection, this pastoral vignette of a nostalgic time when we all had encyclopedias and libraries was incredibly inefficient. Knowledge was expensive and inaccessible. A bunch of people who bought and read books could learn a little about a topic and pass that knowledge off as expertise. If the consumer didn’t have alternative access to information to validate or corroborate the advice she received how could she assess the value of information? She couldn’t. She just had to pay for it and hope for the best.
Legal libraries provide a warm, hygge feel, but they are about as necessary to practicing law as a printing press is to tech start-up. Times have changed. The internet exists. Every law student learns how to do legal research online – quickly, accurately, and comparatively inexpensively.
So, why do most local law firms look approximately the same as they did when the encyclopedia salesman swung by my house? I have a few theories, but primarily I think it’s because consumers aren’t told that they can demand a different type of law firm.
Let’s tell people. Let’s tell people our firm is different. We work to give people all the information they need to make informed choices about their defense. We encourage client questions and research. You don’t have to just trust us, we want to earn your trust by giving you the power of information. Go ahead, think it over, research a little, come back with follow up questions. The more you understand and collaborate with us on your defense, the more satisfied you will be with our advice and work on your behalf. Knowledge still is power. Let’s put it in your hands.
We only do criminal defense. We don’t dabble in wills. We won’t do your divorce. We do one thing and we do it well. We know how to research narrow legal issues and write motions that are germane to the facts of your case. We don’t reproduce a single catchall motion to suppress and dismiss and ignore the important facts of your individual case.
Our rates are competitive. We don’t rely on excessive staff. Your attorney doesn’t need a library and he shouldn’t be passing on the cost of one to you. Our overhead is low so that our attorneys have the maximum resources possible to devote to your case. We use technology to provide better quality, faster service at a lower cost for our clients.
Come join us. Let’s rethink what a local criminal defense firm can look like.