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Book Review: Paperno’s ‘Representing the Accused’ a step-by-step guide for public defenders

Cover courtesy Jill Paperno

In 1996, I stepped into a courtroom as an assistant public defender for the very first time. I had no idea what I was doing. I had only recently been hired by the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office after interning there for a few months. I had some training from the attorney whose caseload I was taking over and I even had a mentor assigned to me. Her name was Jill Paperno and she was an extremely experienced felony attorney. She had a wealth of information to offer me, but truth be told, at the time, it was incredibly overwhelming.

So, like most public defenders, I learned on my feet. And, I became a very good criminal defense attorney over time — with a lot of help from my more experienced colleagues at the office. Whenever I ran into an issue or had a question, I would pop my head into someone’s office and got the answer I was seeking in no time.

But I’ve always thought that there had to be a better way. If only I could have harnessed all the information and collective experience of my colleagues and my mentor in one place. If only I’d had a manual that walked me through the process of representing someone accused of a crime, from the initial intake process through every stage of representation. If only someone with decades of criminal defense experience would take the time to sit down and write a step-by-step guide for new and less experienced attorneys with an interest in criminal defense. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Well sure enough, just 16 years after I first set foot in a courtroom, my wish came true: the “how-to” guide that I had envisioned for young criminal defense attorneys was finally published. It’s called “Representing the Accused: A Practical Guide to Criminal Defense” and coincidentally enough, was written by my former Public Defender mentor, Jill Paperno.

This book is everything I had imagined — and more. It provides young lawyers with advice on just about every aspect of every stage of representing a criminal defendant. From file organization and effective client communication to subpoenaing information and trying a case, this book covers all the bases.

Paperno starts with practice management basics — things you don’t even realize are important when you first start practicing law, in large part because most law schools completely fail to teach lawyers about the ins and outs of managing a case from start to finish. But as you quickly learn when your first criminal defense file grows from a single sheet of paper to hundreds, a large part of effective case management revolves around effective organization of your files.

Paperno tackles this incredibly important, albeit not exactly enthralling topic, at the beginning of the book explaining: “Although a career in criminal defense may be one of the most exciting ones you can select, there are certain kinds of excitement you want to avoid — the excitement of being unable to find an important document or a particular file, for example. Thus, one of the keys to a successful practice is developing the less exciting skill of organization.” Then over the next 18 pages, she provides detailed tips for organizing files gleaned over her 25-year career in criminal defense, ranging from document organization and management to file management and storage, both paper and digital.

From there, she carefully and concisely walks young attorneys through every aspect of a criminal case. In Chapter 3, she offers an assortment of general practice tips, including her warning that as a criminal defense attorney, you should develop a thick skin and prepare to be disliked by just about anyone you encounter in a case, including opposing counsel, judges and witnesses.

Another important tip —sometimes strange things are true. Paperno explains, “Sometimes a client will tell you something that seems completely ridiculous. But before you discount it, if it supports the defense, investigate whether it might be true. Repeatedly over the years, I have been told things I thought were absurd, but learned that there was truth to the claim and eventually used the information to support a defense.”

She then provides a broad overview of the life of a criminal case in Chapter 4 and in subsequent chapters addresses each and every stage of a criminal case, starting with the initial interview of your client in Chapter 5. From there, each chapter focuses on a specific stage of the case, starting with your client’s arrest and arraignment, moving on to pre-trial procedures, including choosing a defense theory, investigating the case, drafting motions, conducting hearings, and finally, at the end of the book, she devotes one chapter to trying cases and another to sentencing.

From discovery and subpoenas to cross-examination techniques and sentencing considerations, Paperno provides invaluable tips and advice from the trenches throughout the book, including this gem in Chapter 9 — a sound piece of advice that clearly comes straight from the mouth of a lifelong criminal defense attorney: “The prosecutor will be an important source of information in your case. But should you rely exclusively on information provided by the prosecutor? The short answer: a definite and resounding NO.”

If I had to come up with one criticism of this book, it would be that it glosses over the importance of, and the effects of, technology as it relates to both the physical management of files and in the investigation of a criminal case. Although these issues aren’t ignored, they are given no more than a passing nod, something I suspect has more to do with the fact that this book was a long time in the making and technology has advanced incredibly rapidly over the last few years.

It is difficult to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies, whether it’s mining social media for evidence or storing and managing client files in the cloud. So the lack of focus on the effects of technology in this book is understandable, but hopefully will be addressed more thoroughly in the second edition of this book. Another minor critique — an index in a subsequent edition would also be a nice addition.

These two small points aside, I highly recommend this book. It provides much-needed information for young lawyers and should, in my opinion, be a part of every law school curriculum. Paperno’s book is an incredible resource and one that I wish had been available to be when I started practicing criminal law back in 1996. The bottom line: this book is a must-have for all newly graduated and aspiring criminal defense attorneys.