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A Solo At the Supremes

by Carolyn Elefant on November 5, 2007 · 2 comments

in Client Service, Criminal Law, Practice & Policy, Solo Profiles

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Over at The WSJ Law Blog, there’s a nice profile of Richard Diaz, the Florida solo who represents Michael Williams, a defendant who is challenging the constitutionality of a federal child-pornography statute in United States v. Williams. Last week, Diaz argued the case before the Supreme Court.

But despite his moment of glory at WSJ Law Blog, Diaz took a bit of a beating over at Volokh Conspiracy, where Eugene Volokh termed Diaz’s brief “pretty shoddy.” The post generated 66 comments, which discussed whether a brief even matters at the High Court (where talented law clerks could just as easily do the research and analysis) and whether Diaz hurt his client by handling the case himself instead of passing it on to another lawyer.

I’ll admit that Diaz’s brief isn’t a model of clear writing, but I’ve seen much, much worse. But how does Diaz’s brief compared to others filed at the Supreme Court by more experienced practitioners? And why is it that solos who represent criminal clients at the Supreme Court are regularly attacked by “experts” convinced that they could do a better job?

And maybe they could, at least up at the Court. But first, the cases have to get there. And I think that many of the experts underestimate the time and the skill that into shepherding a case from the trial level up to the Supremes (the WSJ post describes the procedural history of how Diaz’s client got to the court). Even where a case presents an interesting issue, most clients rarely “buy on.” They want to understand the issue and get a sense of their chance for success. They need to figure out if it’s worth the extra money and psychological toll to move ahead, or if they’re better off just making the best of a result to have a case over.

And the way you get clients to move ahead isn’t by pushing your legal analysis. Foremost, you’ve got to build a trusting relationship with your client so that they’ll accept your advice when you recommend pursuing an appeal to begin with. And Diaz established that kind of bond with his client.

Consider this quote from the WSJ Law Blog story, where Diaz describes why his client chose him over a Supreme Court expert:

I got calls from all over the country from lawyers who called themselves First Amendment advocates. Some graciously offered help, others aggressively tried to take the case away from me. One lawyer accused me of not being an appellate advocate and threatened to contact my client and directly to solicit the case from him. So I wrote to Mr. Williams and I honestly told him that I was neither an appellate advocate nor a First Amendment expert but asked him what he wanted me to do. He essentially told me, “I’ve known you for 20 years as a street cop and I’ve seen you work in the federal court building for over 10 years. There’s nobody I want arguing my case in front of the Supreme Court except you.”

Perhaps Diaz didn’t have the best Supreme Court brief. But he has something far more valuable: the thrill and honor of knowing that his client trusted him with one of the most important legal decisions of his life. And that’s something that many Supreme Court experts will never experience.

  • Anonymous

    We had someone try to poach our Supreme Court argument in the spring 07 term, despite the fact that the lawyers on the case are extremely well-respected in our area of expertise. How come none of these “experts” or big firm types want to lend us a hand when we’ve got one of our many contingency clients knocking at our door? The ego of it is astonishing.

  • Anonymous

    We had someone try to poach our Supreme Court argument in the spring 07 term, despite the fact that the lawyers on the case are extremely well-respected in our area of expertise. How come none of these “experts” or big firm types want to lend us a hand when we’ve got one of our many contingency clients knocking at our door? The ego of it is astonishing.

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