The popularity of Michael Connelly's book, Lincoln Lawyer, and the blockbuster movie starring Matthew McConaughey are enough to make almost anyone want to attend law school, but while these glamorized portraits make it seem like being a criminal defense attorney is nothing more than driving around in a car and making deals, there is a lot of work and skill involved in this career path.
"I have 144,000 miles on my car and it's a 2005 model Chrysler 300," says Chris Shella, a 40-year-old criminal defense attorney from Durham, North Carolina. Even with an office he says that, "it's not unusual for him to drive six hours for a 15 minute conversation."
The term 'Lincoln Lawyer' was created by Michael Connelly to describe his book's main character, who conducts his law practice as a criminal defense attorney out of the back of his Lincoln.
Following his graduation in 1996 from the University of Texas at Austin Law School, Shella got a job as a disability discrimination attorney in Nassau County, New York. While Shella loved the trial work -- "I liked being the courtroom and the thrill of it all; you are dealing with people's freedom" -- he hated that his wife had to work two jobs so that they could make ends meet, since he was not permitted to take a second job.
Rather than being locked up in conference rooms all day, "researching stupid, little details," like when he worked for two large firms in the late 1990s, Shella found criminal defense work exciting. "From 1999-2004 I had my own practice in New York. I was all over the metro area -- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Nassau, you name it, "says Shella. "I was usually in three different counties in one day."
A typical day on the road
Hearing Shella speak about his "typical" day is tiring just to listen to. Its starts early, ends late and involves logging lots of miles. "Because I do a lot of federal murder cases, criminals are not all in one central jail, so I am constantly on the road."
Shella's clients include major drug dealers and murders, so the only difference between him and Matthew McConaughey's character is that most of Shella's clients are incarcerated, like the man accused of selling over 14,000 ecstasy pills or the drug dealer being tried for moving over 39 kilos of cocaine. But even with clients all over the great state of North Carolina, Shella does not have a driver, "because the money you spend on staff is money you can spend on your family."
A mobile office
Thanks to modern technology, Shella is able to use his car as a mobile office and, while many people may dislike the feeling of "living" in their car, Shella appreciates it because it allows him to keep his career exciting as he tries various cases. Also, it gave him the idea for his book, Grinding It Out -- How To Create A Six-Figure Law Practice.
"There are a lot of law students graduating that need to learn how to create a successful business, get a job and get out of debt [from law school loans]. Law school teaches you about the law, and there are many books and online resources out there for lawyers, but my book lays out specific recommendations for what upcoming lawyers should do to be successful," says Shella.
Lessons learned behind the wheel
Among the lessons Shella has learned as he has built a thriving law practice, the two most surprising ones are:
- Repeat offenders. Some clients commit the same crime or offense over and over again. "I had one client in New York who got arrested seven times in six months before his family finally realized they should stop bailing him out."
- The type of lawyers you meet. "You meet some people who are genuinely concerned about their clients and then there are others who are clueless, but will tell their clients that they know what they are doing so they can take their clients money."
When asked about what his favorite and least favorite parts of the job are, Shella has the same answer for both. "You are your own boss." He likes to make his own rules, help people and be in the driver seat.
Advice for others
If you are outside kicking your tires or looking into hybrid, fuel-efficient cars so that you too can become a real life Lincoln Lawyer, Shella offers his free advice first.
- "Go to the best school that gives you the best deal, because as a criminal defense attorney [working for yourself], you will make big money some months and no money other months."
- "For all law school grads, check your arrogance at the courtroom door, because the staff, clerks and courtroom officers are the ones who cover your butt when you forget something or mess up, so don't act like you are better than them."
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