A defense lawyer is an attorney who represents an accused party in legal matters, including in a court of law. The accused party is known as the defendant. Many defense attorneys start out as prosecutors for the state. The prosecutor is there as an agent of the state, acting in the interest of the victim, but not representing them directly.
Criminal proceedings, where there is a prosecutor, don't have a plaintiff, per se, as the party that brings charges against the defendant is a public agency. If a party is charged with a crime and cannot afford to hire a private defense lawyer, the state will assign an attorney to represent the defendant. Though there are many talented state-appointed defense attorneys, accused parties with means usually hire their own lawyers.
In a criminal proceeding, the job of the defense attorney is to vigorously defend his or her client by using the law to cast doubt on the prosecution’s case. It is up to the prosecutor to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. The defense does not have to prove the innocence of the defendant, as the law dictates that a person is innocent by default until proven guilty, but if evidence exists that can exonerate a client, it is up to the lawyer to bring this evidence out when possible.
While it is incumbent on a defense lawyer to vigorously represent the client, there are limits. A lawyer cannot knowingly place a witness on the stand to perpetuate a lie, nor can he or she knowingly lie to the court. For this reason, in high profile cases, it is not unusual that a lawyer will not want to know if the client is guilty. Without that absolute knowledge, the defense strategy can remain more flexible.
Conversely, depending on the circumstances, it might help an attorney to know the truth in order to strategize a mitigation of punishment by presenting the case in the best possible light, making allowances where there is no plausible denial. This might be the case if there is undisputed truth of guilt. Many of these cases are plea-bargained before they reach court or tried in hopes of getting a lesser sentence for the client, or even acquittal if there are sufficient mitigating circumstances.
In a civil proceeding, the job becomes tougher, because the threshold of guilt is lowered to a 51% preponderance or likelihood that the defendant committed the crime. Often, when defendants are found “not guilty” in criminal trials, the victims pursue civil remedies for financial restitution. Civil courts do not hand down prison sentences.
While a prosecutor can make a respectable salary, a high profile defense lawyer is one of the most lucrative careers in law. Defendants with assets who face possible prison terms are willing to pay the best lawyers to ensure the greatest possible chance of avoiding prison. Cases that go on for months can cost defendants millions of dollars. A high-profile lawyer is also often a celebrity due to the notoriety of his or her cases.
Arguably, the most recognized defense lawyer in the world was the late Johnny Cochran (1937-2005). In 1995, Cochran successfully defended OJ Simpson against the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Prior to that, Cochran’s other high-profile cases included the 1993 child molestation settlement of Michael Jackson, and in 1992, the defense of Reginald Denny, a Caucasian truck driver beaten with bricks during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.