From the President: The Best Thing a Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Ever Hear

After a defense lawyer explains to colleagues the challenging and hopeless circumstances of a case, and then reveals a surprising, wondrous outcome – what is the best response the lawyer can hear? “How the hell did that happen?” is the best response.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

What is the best thing a criminal defense lawyer can ever hear? 

Not Guilty
Motion to Suppress Granted
Prosecution Withdrawn

Yes and no.

Each day as they engage in the practice of law, criminal defense attorneys sometimes achieve surprising — and even unheard of — results. They attain these results through hard work, dedication, creativity, and help from colleagues. That’s why I am an unabashed fan of criminal defense lawyers.

It is good for practitioners to share these hard-to-come-by but obtainable results because they spur on fellow defenders to continue fighting against the all too often seemingly impossible odds of a difficult case or complicated situation.

All criminal defense lawyers face their share of defeats, unfairness, and difficulties during the course of representation. When a lawyer obtains that remarkable, surprising — if not magical — result, there is nothing wrong with sharing. It makes it all the more worthwhile.

Camaraderie and esprit de corps are what make the defense community great. This unshakable bond is renewed each time defenders see each other in the courthouse hallway or greet each other at an NACDL seminar.

After a defense lawyer explains to colleagues the challenging, hopeless and sad circumstances of a case, and then reveals that surprising, unexpected and wondrous outcome — what is the best response the lawyer can hear? “How the hell did that happen?” is the greatest response. That’s “the best thing a criminal defense lawyer can ever hear” because it truly reflects the enormity, excellence, unheard of, seemingly impossible, jaw-dropping, and stunning resolution for a client.

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For me, asking “what is the best thing a criminal defense lawyer can ever hear?” is not new. I have used it as an interactive device in CLE presentations for years. The question draws out the inevitable responses of “not guilty,” “motion to suppress granted,” “prosecution withdrawn,” and “probation.” These serious answers are often followed by the humorous responses of “the check cleared” and “they apologized.”

The reason I ask the question is to encourage and inspire, to share a belief that by virtue of that hard work, dedication, creativity, help from colleagues, and generally whatever it takes, the seemingly impossible can be achieved, culminating in surprising, even unheard of, results. Sometimes we need to hear those remarkable results to hearten our fellow defenders — derived from a long held belief that “we are in this together” and the need to encourage friends and colleagues to hang in there and persevere. Defenders can perhaps even surpass expectations, regardless of the apparent difficulty of any set of facts. There is hope — even if it is only maintained as an idealized and internalized expectation — combined with a steadfast desire to obtain an outcome that, on the face of it, is unattainable.

These shared “stories” are worlds apart from the often heard or delivered “war story.” Defense lawyers swap such stories of success not just to revel in a great accomplishment, but rather to inspire their comrades in the trenches. All who hear these stories will realize that they serve to motivate the defense bar.

How can a criminal defense lawyer increase the chances of obtaining that great, unimaginable, and seemingly unattainable result? The knowledge harvested through interaction and bonding with fellow defense attorneys will increase the odds of achieving that great result for a client.

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How many times has a member posed a question on the NACDL discussion group, received a helpful answer, and secured a better result? How many times has a CLE attendee learned those critically helpful “nuggets” that led to a better outcome for a client? How many times during an NACDL quarterly meeting has a member shared the details of a case, and as a result, learned the name of an expert witness that could help a client? How many times has one member called another for assistance?

The simple answer is innumerable times.

I have been fortunate to have been a member of NACDL for 35 years. While NACDL has changed significantly — becoming a preeminent criminal defense policy engine of the country — it continues to advance the defense mission and help its members to assist their clients more effectively and in more ways than any other organization.

Some NACDL members have made an impact by handling a celebrated case or making great case law for defendants. The organization is proud of them. But the organization is equally proud of all NACDL members as they do more for the Constitution day in and day out than any other lawyer and achieve far-reaching beneficial life-changing differences every day for their clients.

Did you convince a judge to grant bail so that your client could go back to work and be with his family while awaiting trial? Did you carefully set the table to ensure a better outcome? Did you also ensure that your client, when needed, entered into a positive course of rehabilitation or therapy while at the same time preparing for trial? Did you uncover favorable or impeaching evidence that turned the tide or destroyed the prosecution’s chief expert witness through comprehensive preparation and a devastating cross-examination? Each time you make an effort as your client’s advocate, NACDL puts a big smile on its face.

Defense lawyers encourage and inspire me because they persevere and surpass expectations. There is nothing wrong with hoping to achieve the seemingly unattainable. This is how it should be. Defenders are dedicated to fighting for fairness, liberty, and constitutional rights. Continue to share those wonderful, surprising results with each other. How the hell did that happen? Hopefully, you will hear that refrain more and more. “Here’s to sharing stories!”1 

And the next time you are talking to a fellow criminal defense lawyer and communing over difficult questions, issues and tall tales, don’t forget to ask: “Are you a member of NACDL?” I hope “yes” will be the answer. However, should the answer be “no,” be prepared to explain and encourage that lawyer to become a member, and be prepared to hear the second best thing a criminal defense lawyer can ever hear — “Yes, I’ll join.”2 

NACDL, Amen.


  1. Personal message from Cal Ripken, Jr. to Ted Simon inscribed in Cal Ripken’s “Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way.”
  2. See the NACDL membership application on page 39 of this issue.
About the Author

Theodore “Ted” Simon is an attorney in private practice in Philadelphia, Pa., where he has based a local, national, state, federal, and international trial and appellate practice representing individuals and corporations. Simon has obtained reversals in the U.S. Supreme Court and in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He is a leading authority on the representation of Americans abroad, extradition, and international prisoner transfer. Simon is a Trustee of the Foundation for Criminal Justice. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Philadelphia’s Jenkins Law Library, America’s first law library.

Theodore Simon
Law Offices of Theodore Simon
1600 Market Street, 14th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Fax 215-563-8798