Guest post by Joshua Baron

How would you rate your most recent interaction with an opposing lawyer? Chances are that if you are a criminal lawyer, it was a lot more pleasant than if you practice other areas of law. The surprising research that supports this is one reason you should take more criminal cases and if you are a new law school graduate choosing a legal field you should consider criminal law.

Criminal lawyers tend to be more cooperative than civil lawyers

Criminal lawyers negotiate more cooperatively and focus on problem-solving more than lawyers in other areas of practice. Professor Andrea Schneider of Marquette University Law School surveyed 2,500 lawyers in Chicagoand Milwaukee and asked them to describe their most recent negotiating opponent (pdf). The respondents were asked to use adjectives to describe the opponent and then Professor Schneider broke those adjectives into four clusters: (1) true problem-solver, (2) cautious problem-solver, (3) ethical adversarial, and (4) unethical adversarial. The negotiating opponents rated the true problem-solvers the most effective and the unethical adversarial negotiators least effective.

She found that more than 71% of criminal lawyers said that their most recent opponent had been problem-solving as opposed to adversarial. Only corporate lawyers rated their opponents as more problem-solving. But criminal lawyers had the highest percentage who were true problem-solvers (49.2%) as opposed to cautious problem-solvers or adversarial.

Family lawyers had the highest percentage of jerks (14.8%) followed by “other” (14.1%) and civil (13.6%).

Why are criminal lawyers so civil?

Professor Schneider proposes several possible reasons that criminal lawyers might be more problem-solving than civil lawyers. I find three of her reasons particularly compelling: (1) There tend to be fewer criminal lawyers than civil lawyers and they tend to work with each other more frequently, so their reputation is valuable. If criminal lawyers are jerks, they will have a harder time working on their next case with the same opposing attorney. (2) The outcome of many criminal trials is relatively clear, so the negotiations focus on the “relatively few contentious issues” on the margins. If you know your client will lose at trial, you don’t have anything to gain by throwing bombs. You will only make things worse for your client. So, you have no other alternative than to try to “solve the problem” and avoid the punitive consequences of trial. And (3) a lot of criminal defendants are in jail while their case is being negotiated and are desperate to get out. The surest way to get out is often to take a plea bargain.

What this means

To the extent that you can, you should avoid working with jerks. You might not be able to avoid it completely, but your life will be better if you are working with true problem-solvers than if you are working with unethical adversaries. As a criminal defense lawyer, my experience lines up very well with Schneider’s research. There is the occasional DA’s office that produces more than its share of jerks or the occasional prosecutor that makes my blood boil, but overall, I’ve had a much better experience on the criminal side than on the civil practice side. I don’t completely take my own advice, though, because I take family law cases. Those tend to be much more contentious and miserable. But I do them.

If you are shooting for good quality of life, criminal law is a good way to go.

(photo: Young man in a suit from Shutterstock)

Joshua Baron is a partner at Sharifi & Baron where he practices criminal defense and family law. He is a political geek and enjoys viewing (but not participating in) football games.