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In any trial there are two parties: a plaintiff, who has brought the lawsuit, and a defendant, who must defend against the allegations. Both parties are usually represented by attorneys. A defense trial lawyer is a lawyer who represents defendants in all elements of trial, from preparation and initial counseling to actual courtroom appearances. These kinds of lawyers can focus on civil cases, such as insurance defense, employment disputes, and product liability claims, or criminal cases, such as money laundering, drug convictions, or assault. The job of the defense attorney varies by discipline and legal specialty. Still, the goal of all defense trial lawyers is the same: to have their client absolved of all allegations, and to resolve all charges amicably.
A defense trial lawyer is above all an advocate. Most court systems stipulate that all litigants have the right to legal representation. Representation is particularly important for defendants, who usually have no say in whether they will participate in the lawsuit. A defense lawyer researches the case on the defendant’s behalf, and looks for legal shortcomings in the plaintiff’s case. Depending on the nature of the case, mounting a successful defense often involves more legal research than someone without formal legal training could do effectively.
Many courts will assign a defense trial lawyer free of charge in criminal proceedings if the defendant cannot afford his own. These defense lawyers are typically called public defenders. Public defenders work for the government and are paid by the government, but are nonetheless obligated to defend their assigned client against any criminal charges that the government has brought. In most jurisdictions, criminal cases are brought by the government, not by private actors.
The public defender system arose out of concern that impoverished citizens charged with crimes had basically no means through which to defend themselves. In a balanced trial system, no party should have an unfair advantage over another, particularly when criminal charges are at stake. The public defender system arose to ensure that all persons facing criminal charges have representation, and to guard against the exploitation of government power against citizens.
Public defenders do not usually get to choose a specialty outside of criminal defense — they are obligated to defend any and all cases that they are assigned. The same is not true in the private sector. Most private trial lawyers choose their area of expertise, and are usually hired based on their record in a certain kind of case.
The scope of what a defense trial lawyer does in many respects depends on the discipline. An civil litigator engaged in insurance fraud defense will have a much different day than a criminal defense attorney specializing in domestic abuse allegations, for instance. At some level, though, what these lawyers do is the same.
Their job is to provide the best representation possible, which involves research, creative and strategic thinking, and a plan to debunk the other side’s key arguments. The defense trial lawyer interviews and selects witnesses, deposes the opposition’s witnesses, and usually looks for ways to settle the allegations before having to go to trial. If trial is necessary, the lawyer helps to select the jury, if applicable, and prepares all opening and closing remarks; the lawyer questions and cross-examines all witnesses, and generally acts as the defendant’s voice in the courtroom.