Criminal defense lawyers plead their case

Working as a criminal defense attorney is some of the most interesting work you’ll ever do, a panel of lawyers recently told Wake Forest University School of Law students. But it can wreak havoc with your personal life and require you to confront the shades of gray in the human character.

Three North Carolina lawyers who have represented clients in death penalty cases shared their experiences with students at the Capital Defense Criminal Law Roundtable on Friday, Oct. 7. They were Lisa Dubs (’87), an attorney in private practice in Hickory; Robert Campbell, an attorney in private practice in Taylorsville, and Mark Rabil, an assistant capital defender in Forsyth County and the director of the law school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic.

The event was sponsored by the Criminal Law Roundtable and Office of Career and Professional Development.

“It’s by far the most fascinating work you’ll ever do,” Dubs told students, as she described visiting a body farm one day and going to an arson lab the next day in order to understand how those crimes are investigated.

Rabil, who worked for 20 years to secure an exoneration for Darryl Hunt, a Winston-Salem man who was accused of rape and murder, warned students that the hours are long and the pay is low.

“Don’t go into capital work thinking you’re going to get rich unless you’re in Hollywood,” he said.

The importance of the work and the challenges it presents keep attorneys engaged in their work, the panel said.

Representing people who sometimes commit horrific crimes also brings special challenges, the attorneys said.

Campbell said that it might sound strange to some people, but you have to be your client’s friend first and foremost.

“My view is, you really have to like your client,” he said. “I believe there’s good in everybody and you have to find that.”

 Dubs said that unless their attorney believes in the value of a client’s life, a jury won’t. “Once you learn who your client is, what their life has been, it’s not that hard to like them,” she said.

Trust is an important part of the client-attorney relationship, Rabil said.

“If you don’t have the trust, you can’t find out what happened to someone,” he said. “You need to find out all their deep, dark secrets.”

Striking the right balance between your work and your personal life can be difficult because capital cases are often all-consuming, panel members said. The work can be particularly hard on children.

When Dubs defended Elise Baker, who was convicted of killing and dismembering her stepdaughter, Zahra Baker, Dubs’ children got nasty messages on their Facebook pages about their mother’s work. She has always tried to involve her children in her office.

Rabil said that he missed a lot of his children’s milestones, but that he tried to help them understand the importance of the work he did. Meditation has helped him detach from work.

When asked what they wished someone had told them when they were starting out, Campbell said that he wished he had understood the importance of forming relationships with judges, district attorneys and other lawyers. That would have made his work easier.

Dubs said that standing up to judges, even when you’re right out of school, and being prepared, will earn people’s respect. “It’s amazing how many attorneys wing it,” she said.