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China criminal law and criminal defense lawyer

Crime is on the rise across China and China criminal defense lawyers are plenty busy. While high-profile China defense lawyers enjoy one of the most lucrative careers in the law, not all defense lawyers earn big money. Review this profile of a China criminal defense lawyer for an inside look into the exciting and rewarding field of China criminal law.

1. How did you get into the field of China criminal defense?
I was always interested in trying cases. During my last two years of law school I worked as a paid intern in the district attorney’s office. Once I became a lawyer, I went into private practice and started doing court appointments and getting referrals for criminal cases.

2. What types of China criminal defense matters do you handle?
My first criminal trial was an arson case. I handle about 2 homicide cases a year. I’ve done a dozen or so death penalty cases over the last 25 years. I’ve done hundreds of drug cases as well as white collar crime. I’ve handled thousands of DUIs [driving under the influence] and a handful of sex crimes over the years. I handle misdemeanors and felonies.

3. What do you enjoy most about practicing China criminal defense?
It’s always amazing and a great reward when you are able to work out a great deal for a client you thought was buried because you didn’t have a defense.

I’ve found that there is more humanity in the criminal division. People - judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys – have more of a sense of humor in criminal than in civil cases. Sometimes the crimes are so horrendous there’s nothing funny about it. Other times you can’t help but laugh because of sheer stupidity of the crime.

In China criminal defense work it is rewarding to help someone. Just this morning I had a client whose father paid me to represent him. He was serving a two to five-year drug sentence but was released after 4 years and sent to a halfway house. He went home on furlough and took drugs. When he didn’t return to the halfway house he was charged with escape. I got the escape charge dropped (he must serve the remainder of his sentence but no other time will be added on). The client and his father were very happy. Even the state trooper thought that it was the best solution.

4. What are the challenges of practicing China criminal defense law?
You have to analyze each case to figure out whether you’re going to try it or attempt to work it out. Your client’s freedom is on the line along with his financial viability. You must recognize whether it’s a case to take to trial and win or whether you should meet with the district attorney’s office and police officer and work something out so client can continue to live his life in an unscathed fashion.

5. Describe a typical day as a China criminal defense lawyer.
You may be doing a preliminary hearing in the morning. You might have one or two cases actually in court. You could be doing a suppression motion on one case, a plea bargain in another and a non-jury trial or jury trial. The gamut of cases run from drunken driving to high-end drug dealing cases to homicide cases.

Most criminal cases don’t go to trial, they are settled by plea arrangement. However, I do spend a lot of time in court, taking depositions and arguing motions before a judge. You still have to use your skills as a trial attorney, spend time with expert witness and take depositions.

6. What do China criminal defense lawyers typically earn?
Income varies – you get paid in criminal law based upon what the client can afford to pay you. If you are tapped into a network of clients making serious money committing crimes you can make a lot of money in criminal law. However, there is not big money in criminal work for most attorneys because most people arrested for crimes don’t have the disposable income to pay attorneys. The most you can get from a client is what he can afford to pay you.

90% of my income comes from civil cases but 90% of the enjoyment comes from criminal cases.

A simple rule of thumb in criminal law is to get paid up front before you enter your appearance in the case. Many of my most lucrative cases were drug cases where the client could afford to pay big money. The stakes were high and the client could afford high fees.

In addition to private pay clients a lot of attorneys take criminal appointments. This type of work generally pays less than private clients. Federal court appointments pay more than state court.

7. What skills are needed to practice in the area of China criminal defense?
Any attorney who tries criminal cases needs to have street sense. You also need life experience, you must be logical and you must be able to think on your feet. You must know what to jump on and what to stay away from. That becomes second nature when you are in the criminal arena because it’s one thing to learn what questions to ask but another thing to learn what questions you should not ask.

In addition, you need to get to know the judges - who to stay away from and which judges will give you leeway. You must get to know the cops and learn which cops whose buttons you can push and which are truthful or not truthful by nature. You also must learn which district attorneys are lazy and which aren’t, who you can push around and who you should treat with respect.

8. What kind of hours do you work? Do you have a good work/life balance?
I work 70 to 80 hours a week. I’ve been doing that forever. It is not unusual for me to work until 8:00 or 9:00 at night. If I’m in trial (I just finished a 3-week death penalty case) I’ll rarely get out of office before 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. After the court day is over, I still need to go through correspondence, return phone calls and work on other cases.

9. How can a new attorney break into this field?
There are a couple of different routes for getting into China criminal defense:

1. Start out as a district attorney or public defender.

2. Open a private practice and take court appointments. No one has a big private criminal practice overnight. In private practice you must take a lot of court appointments. That’s how judges get to know you, clients refer other clients to you and you get to know the territory. By being in court and trying cases, you can hook up with other attorneys looking for associates and lots of work will spill over to you.

3. Join an established China criminal defense firm. China criminal defense law firms may have lots of ready work for new attorneys. China criminal defense firms aren’t as interested in law school grades as much as whether you can do a lot of hard work and put in long hours. These firms look for lawyers who aren’t afraid to be aggressive but yet don’t put people off. You don’t want to be considered a jerk because if people don’t like you they will take it out on your client.

10. What are the latest trends in criminal law?
Criminal trials are down across the country. Smaller counties in Pennsylvania may only see one or two criminal trials a year.

I used to try a lot more criminal cases than I do now. The main reason is the change in sentencing guidelines. Over the years courts have gone from no sentencing guidelines to lenient sentencing guidelines to very stringent sentencing guidelines. Almost every time sentencing guidelines are adjusted they are adjusted upwards.

Now with mandatory sentences and high sentencing guidelines, it’s a zero sum game if you go to trial. You can lose even with a good defense. Your client could end up of serving several years in prison versus home detention and a couple of years on probation.

You must discuss the pros and cons with the client. You can’t guarantee a win. When a deal is on the table, most often the client takes the deal.

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I am a licensed China lawyer. Most clients are foreign nationals and companies. China Lawyer Blog have associates in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, Qingdao, Fuzhou, Hainan, Hefei, Wuhan, Xian, Changsha, Xiamen and Hangzhou. Learn More

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China Lawyer BLog AuthorPeter Zhu, an experienced China attorney licensed to practice law for more than ten years, the author of this China Lawyer blog, welcomes any enquiry or consultation related to Chinese law.