Guest post: Lawyer-alum Eric Morrell’s criminal law practice

Lawyer-alum Eric Morrell is eager to share his experiences with aspiring attorneys.  In this guest post, he talks about his career path, and starting and managing a law office in criminal law, as well as providing some advice for others.  Eric is happy to speak with UMass students and alums, so don’t hesitate to contact him via one of the links below. (Also check out Eric’s earlier profile here.)

Many people apply to law school, because they do not know what they wanted to do with their life and law seems interesting and exciting to them. These students usually have a strong GPA and enjoy debating. I knew way back in elementary school that law was my passion and calling. As such, I applied to UMass Amherst, because it had a strong Political Science Department, and I never looked back. I attended UMass Amherst in the early 90s and graduated with a Political Science degree. During UMass, I applied to law school with help from Professor Sheldon Goldman, with whom I took many classes and he also provided me with a phenomenal law school recommendation. I was off and running to become an attorney.

Law school was very intense the first year. After that, the two following years were basically preparing for the bar in the state in which you will practice. Also in those last two years, I took part in clinics where I represented clients and learned the basics of court procedure. After passing the bar, I suggest you clerk for a judge, work for a local prosecutor’s office, or public defender in order to understand how the court functions. Many people then try to work at bigger law firms. I suggest working at a firm in an area that you enjoy or have some knowledge base. Your goal is to understand the nuances of that area of law, how to try a case, and the most effective way to deal with an adversary. In my experience, I worked for a criminal defense firm with eight lawyers. At the firm, I learned how to try cases. I also learned how to get the best possible results for our clients. This experience was very positive as it exposed me to judges, prosecutors, and court staff in the legal community. I observed how the law firm marketed itself, and how to operate the business-side of a law firm. My writing and my arguing skills increased and I realized I could do this for myself and generate my own clients. Approximately 15 years ago, after speaking to my mentors in the legal community, I decided to start my own law firm.

The following are some of the highs and pitfalls of running your own law practice. When I started the law firm, I think I had $5,000 to work with to open up the practice. I rented a small space in a town very close to where I grew up. I methodically built on my connections to generate business for the firm. At the start, I practiced in all areas of law, but I always focused on Criminal, DWI, and Municipal Court. I progressed on my own and hired staff and associate. I focused exclusively on the above areas that I enjoyed.

In addition to practicing law, you must be able to generate clients to successfully run your own law firm. Many of my friends, family, and colleagues sent me business. The adage that “people do business with who they know, like, and trust,” is true. As such, I developed strong relationships with others who wanted my law office to represent their friends, family, and their clients. Networking with other professionals was a key in helping me grow the practice. I suggest anyone starting their own business in law, or any profession, should “be out there” and readily accessible to clients. Any time you can put yourself in a room with people and discuss what you do and how you could help them is a phenomenal opportunity to expand your business. Every day, there is a new and exciting challenge. I always try to meet my clients’ needs whether I am in a courtroom trying a case, or in the office figuring out why my client was charged with a specific charge when the evidence does not support that charge.

In my last fifteen years of having my own business, I want to share with you some pitfalls. Sometimes you fight very hard for a client, and you cannot get the intended result. Those clients do not appreciate the fight, and they are just concerned with the outcome. I also learned that you must be realistic with the client and try to achieve goals that are possible. Running a business also requires that you have to be present to obtain the new business. Sometimes you cannot, as you are in court for a previous client. A way to solve this issue is to train associates to meet with prospective clients. The problem is the client is coming for your reputation and ability, not the associate’s. This is an inherent problem in any profession. I also learned that not everybody works as hard as you do. If a prosecutor on a case is not as well prepared, sometimes this is a benefit. However, your case can be hurt if you are not as professional or as competent as your adversary. As a result, I try to be more prepared than my adversary on every case.

The criminal system runs very well in New Jersey. However, sometimes certain courts are not prepared for their caseloads. Court staff members are sometimes not thoroughly competent in the courtroom. This causes you to have to spend more time and effort on a matter that you would not normally have to. Collecting money for services can be difficult in a criminal practice. Most criminal lawyers request all retainer money up front, and then perform the services. My practice is to accept half up front, and if the client is employed, I will accept a payment arrangement. As a lawyer you try to extend yourself to a client, but sometimes they are not able to uphold the arrangement. If this scenario happens, the attorney can withdraw from the case, or sometimes you just complete the services.

I know many of you are reading “Orange is the New Black,” and this is your perspective of the jail system. In my experience, unless the crime is terribly violent or the defendant is a repeat offender, most clients do not get incarcerated. People that hire your law practice usually have some resources. In turn, they use these resources to post bail and insure they will be at all court appearances. Currently, I have some serious criminal cases in my office. Only two of my clients are incarcerated while their cases are being resolved. Only one of the two will serve jail time after the case is resolved. In my criminal defense practice, I mostly practice in State Court with more lenient mandatory incarceration laws. Federal court is stricter in regards to putting defendants in prison. A much higher percentage of defendants in federal court go to prison after their case is finished. Recently, legislation has been proposed by Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rand Paul of Kentucky that would decrease mandatory number of years people serve in Federal cases.

Hopefully, you, as a student, choose your career path wisely. Be warned, you will experience some mistakes in this adventure. Each step you take is a valuable learning experience. I knew at a very young age that courtroom work was for me. I find it interesting every day to fight for someone’s justice. A previous boss used to say, “Your goal is to get a client out of 25% of what they’re charged with.” I strive to do that every day. If anyone is interested in speaking to me further about the practice of law or opening up a law firm, please contact me (my contact info is below). Many mentors assisted me in my journey, and I would be honored to pass that knowledge to assist you. I’m also very active on social media. In order to learn more about my journey, and my experiences, please follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Now speak to your mentors, prepare for the LSATs, and make UMass proud!

Law Offices of Eric B. Morrell
191 Livingston Ave
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
(732) 249-9933