Peter Schaffer: Being a Criminal Defense Attorney

Interesting cases, scary clients and how to defend guilty clients.

Peter Schaffer:  I worked for a short time as a lawyer in a general practice firm and I would get there in the morning and go into my office and sit there and sort of wait for the day and the day passed interminably.  Now I sit down for very short periods of time, I’m running around, there’s always three more things to do than I can possibly do at the same moment.  But then again, it’s that sort of pace, especially in New York City, and also the fact that early on I was able to find that I got satisfaction of getting good results for my clients so that’s kept me doing it.
Question: How do you find your clients?
Peter Schaffer:  A lot of the work that I get, like most criminal defense lawyers, I receive assignments from the court, the Federal Court, the State Court and then clients find me to hire me.  I’ve been around for 21 years, so word of mouth, people come to me.Card: What defines a good criminal defense attorney?Peter Schaffer:  Well, first you have to be able to make some connection with your client, have them have some level of trust with you and then you have to be able to assess the case independently of that relationship and try to discuss with your client what the possible outcomes are, what the best results are because the risk is always the client.  No matter what happens, I know I go home, but I think the ability to be able to assess a case as it goes along and to determine what the best course is and to have your client trust you enough to listen to your advice.
Question: What are some of the more interesting cases you have brought to trial?
Peter Schaffer:  Well, I’ve tried a number of drug cases because that’s what most of the criminal justice system is.  And they have interesting elements, but I don’t know if the facts themselves, just looking at them are particularly interesting.  I tried an attempted murder case where my client stabbed someone very severely and it turned out that really he was in the wrong place and he was set upon by a group of actually well-educated college students who didn’t like him because of his ethnicity and we were able to present a successful self-defense there.  And it was unusual because it was a case where a poor person was able to overcome that maybe stigma and show that these drunken, wealthy college students were really the person that started it.  I’ve tried a number of other cases.  Right now, I’m sort of drawing a blank as to what’s interesting, but in each case, there is always something that, you know, I try to focus on or it becomes favorable for the defense.  And if it’s a tiny crack, I try to spend the whole trial widening that crack ’cause all I really need to do is show that there is a reasonable doubt.
Question:  If you believe your client is guilty, how do you justify defending them?
Peter Schaffer:  Well, early on in my career, that decision really meant nothing.  It may make a difference as to how I advise my client as to whether the case against he or she is strong, but my job is to defend the person that I either am hired to represent or appointed to represent to the best of my ability within the bounds of the canons of ethics.  And it really doesn’t matter factually whether, you know, they’re guilty or not guilty; that’s really for the trier of fact to decide, a judge or a jury.  And it doesn’t really make a difference to me.

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