The Trenches: Becoming a Criminal Lawyer
By Randann Sargent
Criminal defence work requires an unwavering resoluteness, fortitude, and the raw grit—if not flat-out ego (I’m half-kidding)—to stand between a dauntingly powerful state and an accused person. I have previously written about some of the principles and perspectives that guide such a lawyer. This summer, though, I was ripped from the comfort of academic pondering and cast into the trenches of practice. I saw principle meet practicality, rationality road-rashed by reality. It was a rollercoaster, both personally and professionally—and all I wanted was more. I worked at Advocate Law in Red Deer; it was unequivocally a dream placement. Broadly, I found myself entrenched in a first-degree murder trial, prepared and ran a contested bail hearing (among other court appearances), and, for the first time in fifteen years, came face-to-face with the judge that once-upon-a-time convicted me. The latter event deserves its own exposé, but for now, it was the transformative event in my life that would eventually see me pursue a career in criminal defence. Let’s begin.
The sun was setting and, oddly enough, a feeling of calm washed over me. I had studied for several long, tireless years, all in preparation for moments such as this.
I recall the anticipation and counting down the days until I started at my summer firm when I received a text message from my principal Andrew Phypers; it read, “Your first file will be a murder, get ready.” I held my phone in the palm of my hand, staring at the message as the gravity of the statement attempted to overcome its surrealness. I sighed and looked out over my yard. The sun was setting and, oddly enough, a feeling of calm washed over me. I had studied for several long, tireless years, all in preparation for moments such as this. The issue was whether our client’s statement was voluntary; he had seemingly confessed to the murder. I walked into the office on my first day, received the file, sat in a corner, and got to it. I worked with another summer student at the firm, Larissa Just. Together, we set out to defend what felt like an impossible case.
The first day of the trial arrived, and with it spanning through June, I packed a bag and spent most of the month in Red Deer. We walked into the Wetaskiwin courtroom where the trial was going to be held; several homicide detectives stood around the two Crown prosecutors we would be facing. All their heads turned and looked at us with blank stares, and I was reminded why we were there: to defend an alleged murderer—in their minds, anyway. There was, of course, a process to defend as well. We shook hands, introduced ourselves, discussed some preliminary matters, and entered the arena…ahem, courtroom. I could feel curious eyes on Larissa and me, the officers wondering about the new students accompanying a lawyer of Andrew’s calibre to a murder trial. I didn’t say much; I kept my head down and made notes as the trial proceeded.
An interesting dilemma presented itself early on: the lawyer for one of the co-accused parties was conceding the voluntariness of his client’s statement and was going to risk having him testify. Given that the only evidence against the accused parties were their statements, it was a baffling decision. Moreover, this would likely result in all three people getting convicted of first-degree murder. When we learned of the concession, Andrew and I looked at each other in complete shock. In an attempt to ward off the impending triple conviction, we approached the lawyer in the parking lot to try and persuade him about his perilous perspective on the case. He was stubborn and did not appreciate the conversation or the jeopardy he was inviting. Our approach was certainly unorthodox, maybe even insulting; however, in the circumstances, the alternative was to stand by and simply point fingers when the inevitable convictions were rendered. Egos may have been bruised, but we had no choice unless we were comfortable with unprincipled passivity. We were not.
Larissa and I spent the next three days reviewing the co-accused’s statement to police, drafting an argument demonstrating its involuntariness. We presented the brief to the other lawyer and waited with bated breath as he reviewed it. He pulled Andrew out of the courtroom and further discussed the issue. We watched when they returned and approached the Crown—he decided to withdraw his early concession to the statement. The Crown, facing Jordan timeline issues, allowed the withdrawal. It worked…
to defend our own client, we were forced to defend one of the co-accused.
Larissa and I let out a heavy sigh; we won the battle, but the war was far from over.
The trial spanned an entire month, each day consisting of a 5:00 a.m. wakeup, workout, taking notes, conducting research, and refining our brief. The hours were long, and the pressure was palpable and overwhelming. Andrew consulted with Larissa and me during our commutes, placing us in the position of counsel, having us discuss strategy and any new issues arising from the day at trial, evidentiary concerns, and how to amend our arguments. Our research document grew as we noted the nuances of various courts applying the voluntariness framework. We watched hours upon hours of interview video and the hundreds of pages of accompanying transcript. Over the following weeks, we would bounce between the brief, the disclosure, and the law—it became consuming. During my long weekend commutes back to Calgary, my thoughts were occupied with nothing but the argument, the thresholds, the police conduct, the inducement, and the reliance. I could think of nothing else, and I didn’t want to. This person was accused of first-degree murder, his life was on the line, and we had a novel issue never before seen in the jurisprudence on voluntariness. We would collapse at our desks at the end of each day, working well into the evening hours. Eat, sleep, read, repeat—that was my June.
The trial continues next week. If a lawyer practices criminal law long enough, they eventually see a person sentenced to life in prison, the visceral tragedy of murder touching so many people. I suppose maybe experiencing that in my second summer as a law student is as good a time as any…we shall see.
While the murder trial was the most memorable case I worked on over the summer months, sitting alone at counsel’s table for a bail hearing is something I also won’t soon forget—it was the first time I was solo in a courtroom with real consequences at stake. I recall some advice I received from Patrick Fagan: treat every file as if it is the file. So, I did. In the grand scheme of criminal defence work, the charges were minor. However, that was not an excuse to be complacent or ambivalent. This was my file; it was the file. I spent the days leading up to the hearing reviewing the law and the facts of my case. I had the highlights of my argument drafted. I spent the night before pacing in my office, reciting my position, mentally preparing to be adaptable. I knew the facts; I knew the law. I was nervous but prepared. If I were going to lose this hearing, the Crown would damn well earn it. Just prior to the matter being called, the Crown approached me to discuss the bail plan. After a brief, informal argument about the issues, she agreed to consent release. The hard work had paid off.
Then there was the day I walked into a courtroom and came face-to-face with the judge that convicted me so many years ago. When the heavy wooden door slowly opened, I stepped into the room, looked at him, and bowed—our eyes met for a split second, and my heart began to race. I sat in the gallery and listened to the proceedings that were already underway. My eyes were locked on the judge, and it was as if the world around me faded to nothing. Auditory noises quieted; the judge’s voice fell to an incomprehensible series of muffled soundwaves. All that existed was him and I. It did not take long for my breathing to slow and my heart to settle, my surroundings rushing back into reality. I looked around, and I was suddenly calm. At that moment, Andrew walked in, and we left the room. He looked over at me and asked me if I was okay. I looked back at him and just nodded yes. I was ready, ready to move on to the next chapter in my life.
I worked at Advocate Law, a criminal defence firm based out of Red Deer. The managing partners are Maurice, Andrew, and Laura. The associates include Michelle, Hannah, David, Darren, and Jamie. The legal assistants Stacey, Nadine, Lisa, Krystal, Sarah, Ilana, and Mel work to keep everyone in line, organized and, frankly, comprise the heart of the operation. I could write an entire article about how unbelievable this team is, but I’ll simply say this: there is no better placement for an aspiring defence lawyer than to work at Advocate Law. Thank you to everyone I worked with this summer for investing in my development, always having an open door, and emulating my passion for the law.