What lawyers really do

Word association time! When I say lawyer, what image comes to mind? Probably someone in a suit, standing in a courtroom and making passionate arguments. And sure, some lawyers do that. In reality, however, the vast bulk of attorneys’ work in criminal cases—whether the lawyers are defense attorneys or prosecutors—takes place outside the courtroom.

The United Kingdom and some other common law countries have two kinds of lawyers: barristers act as advocates in court, whereas solicitors do most of the out-of-court work. We don’t make this distinction in the US, however, and even the UK has blurred the lines in recent years.

Only about 5% of criminal cases ever get to trial. In the other cases, the charges are dropped, the defendant pleads guilty, or a plea bargain is reached. That means that in 95% of criminal cases, the lawyers will never step foot in court.

But of course that doesn’t mean they aren’t busy. They’re leading investigations into the evidence; interviewing the defendant, victim, and/or witnesses; doing research into the law; filing paperwork such as pretrial motions; and discussing the case with the opposing side. Depending on the complexity of the case, these activities will last months or even years. And if the case does end up in court, while the trial is going on the lawyers will continue to do a lot of work behind the scenes.

I know trials make for exciting drama on the screen and in our pages. It’s a bit more challenging to draw excitement out of a scene in which someone’s drafting a motion or memorandum. (“Heart racing, she paused with her finger hovering over the mouse button. Should she click Search now, or were her Boolean terms too broad?”) But if you’re going for accuracy in your depiction of a lawyer in a criminal case, you should at least acknowledge the amount of effort going on outside the courtroom.

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