The Joys and Tribulations of Being a Criminal Lawyer

Just about every weekday, I spend the majority of my day in court. Some of those days are filled with tedious, menial tasks. Other days are characterized by frustration and loss, and the great days are full of joy and victory. Each of these feelings are fleeting, because each courtroom, each client, each judge, and each District Attorney can relegate you to the depths of defeat or the peaks of success. I may feel these emotions once a day if I have a light court day, or 20 times if it’s a day with multiple cases.Let me delve deeper into some of the things that happen on a daily basis.

The Tedious and Menial

Court is not the way it’s represented on TV. Trials happen infrequently and those trials are a very exacting, meticulous presentation of the facts. Rarely is there courtroom drama or a Perry Mason moment. There are few surprises until a judge or jury delivers a verdict. Most observers of court would agree that there are more exciting places to be for a lesson in civics – places that your hind end doesn’t get numb from endless hours on a wooden bench. On most days, court is about waiting. Waiting for a case to be called by a District Attorney that has 300 cases to get through in a day. Waiting for a trial to be scheduled, waiting for an offer to be made on a case. Waiting to get a moment of a District Attorney’s time to discuss a case. And then there’s the paperwork – motions and petitions and orders that need to be agreed to by the District Attorney and/ or signed off by a judge. The majority of almost every day in court is completing these types of tasks.

The Frustrations

Virtually all of my clients are good people. They are hardworking and kind, and have found themselves in the criminal system by making a mistake, not knowing the law, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or being accused by someone with a bone to pick. Some of my clients are guilty. Some are innocent. Some are guilty of something, but not what they’ve been charged with. Especially for those that have never been involved in the criminal system, it is a very confusing and slow system that often defies logic. To get the best outcomes, one must be patient, which can be extremely difficult when the outcome of a case will determine a client’s ability to remain employed, become newly employed, get into school, have custody of their children, find a home, get financial aid. I bear a tremendous responsibility that I do not take lightly. While my clients lives are usually not literally in my hands, they are proverbially so. Therefore, it’s frustrating when I feel my client isn’t being offered a fair shake. And I get really frustrated when I’m working my damnedest to get the best result and my client gets upset because the system doesn’t make sense. I don’t control the court calendar, and I don’t control the outcomes of my clients’ cases. If hiring an attorney automatically means that a case will be dismissed, I would be a ridiculously wealthy man. I can’t tell you how many times a client has said to me, “Why isn’t my case being dismissed? What am I paying you for?”

I also frequently get the question, “If I hire you, what are you going to guarantee me?” As with the above questions, people think that hiring an attorney guarantees an outcome – a guarantee that I can’t provide. What I can guarantee is that I will fight my hardest – kicking, screaming, cross-examining and arguing until the cows come home, to make sure that my client’s case is appropriately represented in hopes that the result will be that a judge or jury accepts my argument. I can guarantee that I won’t unnecessarily plea you out when you have a case to fight. I can guarantee that I’ll listen to your concerns. I’ll guarantee that I won’t tell you something I don’t believe to be true, even if it’s something you don’t want to hear.

The MOST frustrating things: losing when I feel I should have won (doesn’t everyone hate that?), seeing a good person harshly punished, and sometimes thinking after a case that I left something on the table, even when others tell me I didn’t. I like to win cases. Not just for me, but because I understand what winning means for my clients. And last, it drives me absolutely nuts when I get a good result for a client and the client is unappreciative and frankly, angry because they don’t understand why they were charged in the first place and why it took so long for the case to be resolved.

The Joy

This is what makes everything worth it: I might have 5 consecutive court appearances for a client that are frustrating, but the last one – the most important one – might be the best. And that makes it all worthwhile. Obviously, if I win a trial, it’s great. If I win a trial that is very complex and based on technicalities of procedure that I have to unravel, it’s even better. If I get a great plea agreement for a client facing significant consequences, it’s a good thing. It’s the best feeling to know that my hard work has paid off in a good result for my client. But what gives me the absolute most joy is when my client recognizes that hard work, recognizes the difficulty of practicing criminal law and is grateful. While most of my clients are grateful when I get a good result, the ones that really touch my heart are those for whom a trial resulted in a guilty verdict and yet they are still incredibly appreciative for the fight I put and the representation I provided. Those occurrences are humbling and make me grateful to have the opportunity to do what I do everyday. It’s those cases that make me look forward to going to court every day.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.