My interview with Nate was fascinating. Criminal defense is an area of law that is most commonly depicted in movies and television so I found it very interesting to hear about Nate’s day-to-day activities, how he gets new clients, and what he enjoys and finds challenging about his job. It was also news to me that most criminal defense attorneys work for themselves (like Nate does).
Date of Interview: August 18, 2021
Interviewee: Nate Niesen
Answer: Criminal Defense Attorney
Answer: I work for myself, in my own practice.
City you work in
How much does a Criminal Defense Attorney earn?
[Compensation data was not provided by the interviewee. The below compensation information was retrieved from online references are described below.]
$86,581 is the average pay for a criminal defense attorney in the United States with no specific years of experience. This average is based on a rather small sample size, so I would not necessarily give Glassdoor high marks for reliability in this area.
Salary.com reports that the average Criminal Defense Lawyer salary is $91,027 (as of July 28, 2021), and the range of salaries is $77,803-$104,724.
Years at your current job
Answer: I’ve been working for myself basically since I finished school. I graduated law school in 2010, studied for the bar that summer, and then was sworn in November of 2010. I was never officially affiliated with any other firm or attorneys. My mother was also a defense attorney. She was a public defender for several decades. So I worked with her for a short while when I finished school, but her practice was always separate from mine.
Is your path to work for yourself typical for criminal defense attorneys?
Answer: Most defense attorneys spent some time in either the public defender’s office at the state attorney’s office before coming out. Law school does not teach you how to be a lawyer in any specific area of law. They mostly deal in generalities and mostly deal with how to think through a problem. Law school helps train students on the initial steps on where to look for answers. Criminal defense revolves around jurisdiction specific matters. Each jurisdiction works differently. For example Cook County [where Chicago is located] differs from DuPage County or Lake County [counties surrounding Chicago]. I have to know the statutes and the rules of evidence.
Years working in your field
Answer: 11 years
What was your college major?
Answer: My undergrad major was in rhetoric. At the time, I had no intention of becoming an attorney. I wanted to be a writer or editor. After college I didn’t feel like I had the discipline to be an independent author, so it wasn’t the path for me. I was doing various jobs for about three years, but I wasn’t on a specific career path. At that point, I decided to go back for law school so I could have a better [earnings] upside.
What college did you go to?
Answer: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for Bachelor’s Degree
Did you go to graduate school? If yes, was it required?
Answer: I went to DePaul for three years for law school.
Do you have any other professional licenses or certifications?
Answer: I’m registered with the ARDC [Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission]. As a criminal defense attorney, I have to be a member in good standing of the Bar [American Bar Association].
What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?
Answer: Bachelor’s Degree and law school.
Do you feel that your school’s reputation had a significant impact on getting a job in your field?
Answer: No, not much of an impact. There are people working in the public defender’s office that came from law schools all over Chicago. I’m glad to have attended a Chicago-based law school because it’s typically where contacts are made. Going to DePaul didn’t make a tremendous difference compared to other Chicago law schools such as Kent and John Marshall. What made a bigger difference is that I volunteered with the public defender’s office while I was in law school and made contacts.
Big Law is a different animal and is not something I ever wanted to pursue. There’s a networking/prestige component to getting a job in Big Law. A law school, such as John Marshall, casts a wider net for admissions – they admit more students, but more students fail out. John Marshall is ranked lower [relative to other Chicago-based law schools], but tons of good lawyers come from the school. However, likely none of these students will go to Big Law, due to the school’s ranking.
The economy tanked when I went to law school. There was a significant increase in students going to law school at the same time. Many believed that earning a J.D. [Juris Doctor – degree granted by completing law school] would help them secure a job. Many of the law schools responded and started acting as savvy businesses. Tuitions went up as admissions went up.
Job Demand & Stability
Did you have any internships?
Answer: It was not an internship, but I worked for a family law firm, which was basically a part time job. I also worked for a lawyer who did real estate closings and also spent time clerking at the public defender’s office.
There was also a private defense attorney I worked for. He was in his early 70’s and I ran dates for him. In other words, if he couldn’t make it to court, I would go for him. There are six districts in Cook County, and an even greater number of court houses. On any given day, an attorney might have to go to any number of these ~10 court houses. Some busy attorneys have to find someone to go to court and get a continuance for them if they are too busy. I had the opportunity to be in front of judges and talk to clients by myself compared to when I clerked at traffic court and in the multiple defendants division. When clerking, I didn’t get to talk to clients much, because the public defender did the talking as I was listening. When I was running dates for the criminal defense attorney, I would let the clients know their attorney wouldn’t be there, or I’d talk to a judge. I would sometimes catch an earful from one or both of them.
If you lost your job tomorrow, would it be difficult to get a similar or better job?
Answer: My skills as a criminal defense attorney are not fungible, so I couldn’t be something like a tax attorney tomorrow. The skills do not transfer outside of practicing criminal defense. If I needed to, I could get a job with a public defender’s office or something like that.
It would be tough to build a practice from scratch if I were to move. I would have to join another office, but there are only a handful of criminal defense offices that exist. Usually there could be 1-2 attorneys with an established name and they hire associates to do the grunt work. The associates then kick up a percentage [of revenue] to the senior attorneys. Most criminal defense attorneys work in a solo practice, like I do.
There is no shortage of work. I never even promote myself. When I started my practice I spent a lot of time on each case because I felt like I needed to learn the ropes. Some attorneys take the opposite approach and advertise right away to expand their client base and then figure out what to do next.
There’s plenty of clients out there and plenty of crime in Cook County. That’s never going to change. I cannot think of any scenario where my job will no longer be useful.
Advice For Success
What advice would you provide to someone that would like to become a criminal defense attorney?
Answer: It would be useful to join one of the [Public Defender or State’s Attorney] offices or to work with an experienced attorney for a little while. Without my mother’s guidance, I would have been lost. I’ve seen some lawyers try and do it on their own and they’re lost. I just feel bad for them and for their clients. I think they’re doing their clients a disservice.
It’s really helpful to actually know what you’re talking about. An attorney can lose their license if they pretend [to know what they are talking about] and give the wrong advice. An analogy I would use is that a basketball player could go straight from high school to the pros. That’s usually reserved for the people that are really talented in high school. But sometimes these players come out of high school and they are missing some fundamentals they could have developed in college. These players sometimes have a hole in their game. Many times if a criminal defense attorney doesn’t spend some time with one of the offices, its like they are skipping college [basketball] and going straight to the draft and that’s not [suited] for everybody. It’s not a perfect analogy, because I’m not saying that I’m uber-talented or anything like that. I was in a different situation [having the guidance of an established criminal defense attorney out of school].
Nature of Job and Schedule
Describe what you do
Answer: I get all my new cases and leads from calls to my cell phone. I don’t have a website because my clients wouldn’t use it. I don’t really advertise at all. When my phone rings, it’s either the person that’s been arrested or a family member of theirs, because they are in jail. The usually say they were referred by someone else because that’s how I usually get my new cases. The person on the phone will often say, for example, “my brother/husband is in county jail for a gun case and their court date is coming up.” They want to know how much I’ll charge to represent them, so I’ll provide a price quote and also ask them what happened. I have access to the clerk system and can look up their cases to find out what’s going on with it, where they are assigned, and when I need to show up for them.
The first thing that happens is bond court, which is usually the day after they are arrested. Sometimes I get cases in time to allow me to do their initial bond court, but sometimes it’s afterwards. The second step is the preliminary hearing stage which occurs in specific courthouses. Either they can have a preliminary hearing, or they can be indicted. The purpose is to determine whether there is enough evidence to go to next step or not; essentially to determine if the case is total B.S. or not. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the case can move forward and the judge or grand jury finds probable cause. 1-2 weeks later, you are assigned to a court room which will be your judge. Then you have your arraignment, where you formally enter your plea of not guilty and make a motion for discovery. That means I ask for police reports, recordings, and anything else the state would use against the client. I review everything the state provides, which is typically in electronic format. I look over the items and see what I can do with them. I have communications with the clients or their intermediates. I see what ideas they may have or ask what the police may be lying about that can be exploited. Then I determine if the case should be fought or enter negotiations.
A typical day could range from dealing with a couple or up to 8-9 cases. They may require appearing in front of various judges and letting them know where the case stands. I might need to ask a judge for something (e.g. a motion), attend a trial, or attend a bond hearing. Basically, I am checking in on my cases at their various stages.
Describe your daily and weekly schedule
Answer: It’s extremely variable. On any given day, I could be in front of a judge between 9AM-12PM. The exception would be for litigation, or a motion or trial with witnesses – these could last into the afternoon until 3:00-4:00PM, but that is not typical. A jury trial, which is even less typical, could last a few days in a row, from 9:00AM-5:00PM. Usually, I just have court in morning and then I am back at my office doing discovery, talking to clients, etc.
I may end up talking with clients at any time. I get calls all the time. It could even be Christmas morning or Easter. There’s no stopping it. I can turn my phone off but that could mean missing out on a case. It just depends how busy I want to be.
What parts of your job are repetitive?
Answer: Part of the reason I do this job is that it’s not so repetitive. The paper work isn’t so bad with criminal law – it’s actually one of the perks of criminal law. It allows you to get out and meet with clients. It’s really not too bad, relative to repetition.
What parts of your job require learning or performing new duties/responsibilities?
Answer: There are two main things. First is that I have to stay on top of how the County is operating at any given time. That’s especially true during COVID. The procedures seem to change almost every week. There can be changes to what’s done in person, versus what may occur in a Zoom meeting.
Second, there are training requirements. This is known as continuing legal education (CLE). We [attorneys] have to complete so many hours every other year and report them. Usually the training relates to changes in the law. Sometimes it may be to just learn a new area of law or it could be a new aspect of criminal defense. For example, learning how to deal with overweight truck tickets or how to deal with new laws around body cameras. There is also new case law that comes out all the time to learn about. There are new case law decisions that come down in Illinois all the time. For example, what is the impact of marijuana being legalized in terms of probable cause to search? That’s a subject for continuing legal education right now.
Describe the setting you work in most
Answer: It’s a lot different due to COVID. Before COVID, I was in the courthouse half the day and in my office half the day. Somedays I was in the courthouse even more if I had trials, etc. Since COVID, we’ve been on Zoom a lot to discuss the status of cases. We don’t really need to be in a courthouse for that. Right now I am probably spending 80% of the time in my office, and that will probably change again soon.
Describe the nature and frequency of working with other people while doing your job
Answer: A lot of being a good criminal defense attorney has to do with knowing a lot of the court personnel. It’s important to get to know basically every states attorney in Cook County, if you can. All of the clerks in the rooms have different personalities and ways of doing things, which is helpful to learn. The same goes for the sheriffs. It’s helpful to put an effort into becoming friends with everyone. It helps to be busy because then I go to more courthouses and learn more about all the court personnel.
I did not have much personal experience dealing with the people that were charged with serious crimes, before becoming an attorney. I had to get to know them and learn how to relate to them better without pandering. It’s been different! I had to learn what they were expecting out of me, and it can be different for each client. I take my clients from public defenders for the most part. A lot of my clients do not like the public defenders, partly due to reputation and partly because the public defenders do not need them as clients. The public defenders do not need to sell themselves or to be nice to the clients. I can’t afford to handle my business that way. Communication is probably as important as knowledge of the law for me. It’s been an interesting experience because a lot of my clients live in a completely different world than what I am used to.
What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?
Answer: Everyday is different and interesting. Most of my cases present unique problems. Sometimes I may get ~5 cases in a row with a similar fact pattern, but often its like a new puzzle I get everyday. The variety helps exercise my brain.
The autonomy and flexibility are also nice since I am my own boss. Nobody is looking over my shoulder making sure I’m not, for example, online shopping instead of working.
There’s also a social justice component to my job which is rewarding. I fight for people that otherwise have trouble finding advocates for themselves. There are plenty of negative journalistic opinions of Chicago’s South and West sides. People are frustrated with a lot of the areas in Chicago and I can help humanize these clients and show they’re redeemable, as I defend their rights.
What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?
Answer: The worst part is trying to chase down money. I hate that part, including the conversations I have to have with clients about it. It’s a challenge for many businesses. Sometimes the clients can’t help it, too, and they just don’t have the money to keep paying me.
Sometimes clients can be challenging or unreasonable but that’s true in any line of work. Criminal defense attorneys may struggle at first, because clients don’t think their attorney knows anything. It’s almost like they can smell weakness if someone doesn’t know what they are doing.
Lastly, some case management tasks can be annoying. Half of my clients are on house arrest since Cook County emptied out a large portion of the jails. While clients are out, a huge portion of my job is dealing with house arrest violations. Clients want the ability to move around so they can go to certain places. Or it could be something as simple as, for example, a client received a violation because they stopped at Wendy’s on their way home. This stuff is part of the job, but not what attracted me to it.
Does your job provide work/life balance?
Answer: There is flexibility, but it’s difficult to take time away without taking a pause on answering my phone. I would also need to get people to cover for me, since I work for myself. The work/life balance isn’t bad. I work about 9-10 hours a day, but it’s spread out throughout the day. Then I might have bond hearings to attend on weekends.
How much time off do you take from work?
Answer: I take very little time away and days off. It’s been busier over the last two years, or so. I do have a four-year-old and a two-year-old, which limits our travel, especially with COVID.
Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?
Answer: The flexibility is the best thing. I have a lot of interesting stories, too. I can talk to anyone about my job and people find it interesting.
Why did you pick your job?
Answer: Many other areas of law are boring. I didn’t want to spend all day in an office and wanted to get deep into people’s issues. The argument I get to make on behalf of clients can have a large positive impact on their lives. I feel like I really get to help people in that way.
What would you do if you had to change careers?
Answer: I don’t have any regrets about what I do [Nate expressed he was content with his job and it does not seem like he’s had to spend any time thinking about a possible career change].