Criminal defense attorneys are an important component of today’s modern criminal justice system. In an adversarial justice system, defense attorneys are necessary for the process of achieving a fair trial . Their profession requires them to fulfill several roles, including “technician, counselor, and social worker”. The most basic duty of a defense attorney is to be a zealous advocate for their client Smith breaks down this duty into three obligations: to be a fearless and zealous supporter of the defendant; to represent the defendant without judgment despite the quality of their character or moral flaws; and to protect the information that pertains to a client’s case. According to Smith ,, advocating for the accused requires an “unflinching and full-throated pursuit” of anything that could benefit or protect the defendant . Perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of the defense attorney’s role is to remain detached from judgment that could be triggered while defending a client. Detachment helps to secure the notion that no one can be denied fair representation due to the nature of a crime or the client’s character .
A defense attorney might personally feel a great deal of negative emotion towards a client due to the nature of the crime they are accused of or the client’s disposition and character. Defense attorneys are required to set those feelings aside and vigorously advocate for their client despite what that attorney might personally feel. The last obligation that a defense attorney has to their client, according to Smith, is confidentiality, which is important in maintaining a fluid professional relationship between the defense attorney and their client.
In our modern legal system, with the establishment of sentencing guidelines and other legal rules, defense attorneys often find themselves “acting as a buffer between the defendant and the rest of the system” .Defense attorneys must use creativity and skill to work a criminal case, sometimes searching for ways to benefit their client. This also entails that a defense attorney must be able to guide their client through the complexity of a criminal case and help them make sometimes difficult decisions . Some defense attorneys from Etienne’s study characterize their role as being similar to a social worker.
These attorneys view the very act of prosecution as being a traumatic experience for defendants, whether the outcome of the case is guilty or not guilty. These attorneys feel that it is important to support their clients, minimize the impact of the justice system on their clients, and sometimes do tasks that are “beyond legal counseling” . This includes acts such as helping find community resources for their clients, and in one instance, finding guardianship for a defendant’s “children in anticipation of” her being imprisoned .
Furthermore, as Smith points out, defense attorneys may have an implicit obligation to interact with other parties, such as victims. In order to be a zealous advocate for their clients, defense attorneys must question victims and witnesses about situations that can be traumatic or emotionally intrusive. According to Smith, these types of questions are important and absolutely necessary for serving the best interests of the defendant. However, the eighth rule listed in the CVRA statute states that legal authorities must be respectful of the victim and their dignity.
If that were to include questioning victims for evidence gathering or during cross examination, then that means defense attorneys are having to make decisions about what is necessary for their client’s case, but not offensive to an alleged victim.