The right to legal representation against criminal charges is engrained in the fabric of American law right in its foundational document: the Sixth Amendment provides for “…the assistance of counsel…” to provide defense for the accused in any criminal prosecution. And everyone who has ever watched a crime show on TV is familiar with the modern phrasing of the guarantee:
You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
And along with that attorney, there will usually be an expert paralegal or two, specializing in criminal defense work.
To work in criminal defense, a paralegal has to develop a particular sort of mental armor. Many defendants are, in fact, guilty as charged, sometimes of horrific crimes. Yet regardless of what they have done, the American system guarantees them a competent legal defense. Despite personal misgivings, defense paralegals have to give 100 percent to every single case to fulfill that promise.
The Sordid and Noble World of Criminal Defense
Enormous stakes ride on every criminal trial, both large and small. Often, the freedom and good name of the defendant are at stake, but so, too, are the matter of justice and the good of society, and the victims. Working as a criminal defense paralegal involves walking thin ethical lines among these weighty matters and giving due deference to concerns from all the parties involved in a trial.
This is as true with the lowliest DUI case as with the most lurid murder trial. Going to prison is a life-changing event; in addition to the emotional and physical turmoil that comes with being locked behind bars for months or years. A 2015 study found that two-thirds of households in which a family member was sent to prison had trouble paying basic food and housing costs after paying court costs and losing the income of the convict.
In some communities, that cycle of poverty can be more punishing than the prison time itself. And with 67 percent of released convicts unable to find solid jobs again after prison, there’s no easy way out. Losing a criminal case can be catastrophic, which is major motivation for criminal defense paralegals to ensure their client receives a fair hearing and every protection available under the law.
Criminal Defense Is About Getting the Details Right
All paralegal work is detail-oriented work, but rarely are those details so important as in a criminal trial. The justice system has become enormously effective at identifying and assembling evidence to convict criminal defendants. Conviction rates in the United States range between 59 percent and 93 percent. Prosecutors don’t bring cases before the court they don’t think they can win.
Consequently, a case can turn in the favor of the defense based on procedural details. If evidence was collected improperly or police mishandled the investigation, the case can be thrown out entirely. A defense paralegal has to be letter-perfect on their knowledge of criminal procedure, and be able to instantly spot violations of suspect rights or evidence tampering.
Of course, you can also lose a case on a technicality. Paralegals working for the defense have to keep careful track of the trial calendar to ensure that they file required documents on time, whether pleas, witness lists, theory of defense statements, or answers to criminal complaints.
They may be responsible for drafting that paperwork as well as performing the legal and factual research necessary to produce it.
Although paralegals spend plenty of time preparing cases for a courtroom defense, the fact is that 97 percent of federal criminal cases and 94 percent of state cases in the US end with a plea bargain. Paralegals assist with the negotiations and drafting of those plea agreements.
Criminal Defense Work Offers an Array of Opportunities for Paralegals
There are many facets of criminal law and paralegals have a lot of choices in the type of defense work they take on.
Public Defenders Represent The Indigent and Powerless
Because of the Sixth Amendment guarantee to counsel, states and the federal government fund public defender offices, which have the job of representing defendants who are unable to afford a private attorney.
These offices rely heavily on paralegals because of the heavy workload they manage and the relatively low budgets they have to operate within. Although the pace is hectic and the positions are demanding, these jobs present an excellent choice if you are confident in your skills and eager to criminal litigation. Because attorneys in public defender offices are chronically overworked, paralegals can end up performing much more substantive and varied legal work than they might in private practice.
This can include significantly more client contact. The paralegal might handle intake, witness interviews, and continue communication with the defendant throughout the case, serving as the primary liaison.
Private Criminal Defense Paralegals Can Become Specialists
Private criminal defense is an option available to individuals with enough money to afford it. Criminal defense law firms attract some of the best and most qualified attorneys and paralegals, and clients with their freedom on the line are willing to pay top dollar.
This allows paralegals to drill down and become experts in relatively narrow aspects of defense work.
Voir dire is an enormously important part of jury trials and another area where paralegals are intimately involved. Although empanelling a sympathetic group of jurors is important to both the prosecution and the defense, defense attorneys commonly have more resources to bring to bear to evaluate their options than district attorneys do.
Paralegals may specialize in evaluating jurors and advising attorneys on likely perspectives and opinions jurors have on the case. This process takes on aspects of psychology and social profiling and can be more about reading personalities as thinking through legal perspectives. These paralegals might go so far as to put together individual profiles on prospective jurors, working with psychologists and private investigators to learn as much as possible about background experiences that could affect whether or not a juror would find a defendant innocent or guilty.
Paralegals can also specialize in other aspects of criminal defense work, such as sentencing. An increased legislative focus on sentencing guidelines, including mandatory minimums sentences and an increased availability of diversion programs and other prison alternatives has turned sentencing hearings into something nearly as complex as trials themselves. Developing a strategy based around the known proclivities of judge or jury in specific situations and the options they have is often the job of a paralegal.
Becoming a Criminal Defense Paralegal
All paralegal degree and certificate programs cover criminal law in some respect, so when you graduate, you will already have some basic qualification in the field. But most employers will want to see some additional experience or education before putting you to work on criminal cases.
Volunteering for a public defender’s office is one of the best ways to get exposure to the practical side of paralegal work in criminal defense. Defenders are constantly busy with cases of all types and frequently offer volunteer opportunities to help with basic office work that will get you exposure to both working paralegals and the cases they are confronted with.
Obtaining a post-degree specialty certification is another way to get valuable training in criminal procedure and trials. There are two organizations that offer advanced certifications to practicing paralegals:
- NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants
- Criminal Litigation
- California Advanced Specialization in Discovery (dealing with rules specific to the state of California)
- NALS, the association for legal professionals
- Criminal Law
- Juvenile Law
- Trial Management
- Appellate Law
Working in criminal defense can be tough and emotionally demanding, but also enormously satisfying.