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Differences between a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer and a State Criminal Defense Lawyer

On Behalf of | Feb 6, 2022 | Firm News

In conversations with clients, one of the issues that is often discussed is what is the difference between a federal criminal defense lawyer and a State or local criminal defense lawyer. Clients often indicate that they are looking for, or have been told to look for, a “federal criminal defense lawyer,” or a “federal lawyer” – and sometimes even a “criminal defence” lawyer.
It might seem obvious, but a federal criminal defense lawyer is one who regularly handles cases for client/defendants who have been charged with federal crimes. Therefore, these cases are tried in one of the federal district courts, including the federal district court in Chicago, which is the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. It is therefore of course important that the client’s federal criminal defense lawyer has previously successfully handled a substantial variety of federal criminal cases.
Why is that important?
First, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the Federal Rules of Evidence will be applied by the federal district court. In addition, the federal district court will also have its own Local Rules, which may also apply in certain significant respects. So, the “rules of the game,” so to speak, for the federal criminal defense lawyer are entirely different than if he was handling essentially the very same fact pattern on behalf of a client/defendant who has been charged in a State court criminal proceeding.
Second, it is often helpful for the federal criminal defense lawyer to have some prior experience in the courtroom of the federal district court Judge who is handling the case, or in that federal district, not because the lawyer will be given any special treatment or advantage, but because it will assist the lawyer in analyzing how the Judge might respond to certain arguments; how that Judge will handle certain types of proceedings, including pre-trial motions, evidentiary hearings, voir dire (jury selection), and the trial itself; and what types of sentence the Judge has historically been likely to assess in the event the client/defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty after a trial, or what types of sentences are within the mainstream within that federal district court as a whole.
Third, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines will be applied. Those Guidelines are irrelevant in State court criminal proceedings. So, it is extremely important for a federal criminal defense lawyer to be well versed in those Guidelines. The application of those Guidelines and their potential application and consequences to the federal criminal defense lawyer’s client cannot be understated. For example, it will be important for the federal criminal defense lawyer’s client to know if the federal offense that he/she has been charged with carries any potential “mandatory minimum” sentence – in other words, a sentence that the federal court Judge is required to assess and cannot go below, regardless of the specific facts of the case or other mitigating circumstances.
Finally, one of the crucial differences between a federal  criminal defense lawyer, and an attorney who has only handled State or local criminal offenses is the track record of success of that federal criminal defense lawyer in federal criminal jury trials. Put a different way, has the federal criminal defense lawyer actually won federal criminal jury trials brought by federal prosecutors? If so, how often and in how many different types of cases?
We have been fortunate as federal criminal defense lawyers at Leonard Trial Lawyers to have taken federal criminal cases to juries and obtained complete not guilty jury verdicts for our clients on a substantial number of occasions.
-Michael Leonard    Leonard Trial Lawyers