By KBK Associate Michael J. McCarthy (September 2023)
The world of white-collar defense and investigations is certainly a foreign one for the newly minted barrister. It is full of experienced practitioners who have often spent years as a prosecutor or public defender and use jargon not found in any textbook. The clients and their goals are unique as well. Above all, the opposition will almost always be the Government (with a big G) or “the People,” led by a prosecutor who—though free of the billable hour— wields massive powers of discovery that go far beyond any civil subpoena or deposition.
The barrister is in for an extraordinary adventure that will doubtless feel daunting at first, but there are a few keys that can help jumpstart the journey.
All the Pieces Matter
The junior barrister will rarely be expected to lead a joint defense strategy call or act as the main point of contact with the client. Instead, the focus should be on realizing the importance of taking in every piece of available information, whether it is the responsibility of the barrister or not. In essentially becoming the casefile, the barrister will seize the earliest opportunity to make an impression on fellow attorneys, who will always appreciate the deeper read.
A criminal investigation—especially in the white-collar context—relies so heavily on circumstantial evidence that no fact should go unnoticed. As the barrister gathers and memorizes those facts, his or her instincts and judgment will quietly develop in parallel with observing how senior attorneys respond.
The “Golden Rule”
The legal variant of life’s “golden rule” is that the importance of proofreading a filing can never be overstated. Though unstated within the marble walls of the courthouse, the overriding sentiment is that the defense, especially counsel from a reputable firm, is held to the highest standards of form and substance.
Typos may not alter the holding of favorable legal authority, but they can set back counsel’s credibility in matters in which the court is required to make a close call.
Crawl, Walk, and Then Run
The only trouble with excelling as a notetaker and spending all those hours proofreading is that the barrister runs the risk of perennially taking on these roles, even as they move up the ranks. While being the “firm’s most supreme notetaker and writer” is an admirable feat, the barrister should take every opportunity— especially those that come early in one’s career—to volunteer for new (and frightening) challenges that broaden horizons. Owing to the fact that most white collar practitioners will have developed parts of their skillset outside the private sector, the junior barrister should seize chances to close the gap.
The discomfort of first-chairing a pro bono matter in superior court or joining a trial team barreling toward jury selection will not only serve as a confidence builder but it also will quicken the speed with which the junior barrister ascends the echelons of experience.
They Don’t Teach It in Law School
Leaving Fido and undertaking a strenuous drive on the 101, 5, or 405 will never become any less painful. However, making the trip to the office a few days per week is the single greatest difference maker in Year One. Not only will the barrister form real relationships with senior associates and partners, but the organic conversations that can and will spring up from a simple question far outweigh the benefits of a fully remote workday that begins and ends in pajamas.
White collar partners—like their public sector counterparts—are well known first for their love of sharing stories of old cases, and then for their desire to share insights on other’s cases.
Accordingly, the junior barrister should prepare for a crowd to gather and keep a pad close to compile the “advice he or she will no doubt receive from those who have wandered into the conversation.
The World Is a Smaller Place Now
Bar association events not only offer the opportunity to unwind after another long day at the office, but they serve as a catalyst for friendships that may span 20, 30, and, in some cases, 40 years. White-collar work often sees common interest and joint defense teams made up of attorneys from many firms. Acquaintances and friendships foster efficiency and trust in these cooperative situations.
At the end of the day, the barrister’s reputation will always be based more on the barrister’s personal name than the one on the firm’s wall. It is never too soon to start putting that name out there.
These keys present a decent head start for those who are starting out in white- collar defense and investigations. One final piece of advice: In between taking copious notes and diving into challenging but rewarding assignments, the barrister should take a moment (non-billable, unfortunately) to think about creating a personal voice. The new barrister may soon find an idol among the partnership class, but only danger lies ahead for those who attempt to become a carbon copy. The practice of law is an art, and in the world of white-collar work, no two artists are the same.