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Journey of a Criminal Defense Attorney in Washington DC Part Four

Journey of a Criminal Defense Lawyer in DC

Throwback Thursday Edition: This is a blog that was originally written and posted in 2011.

By David Benowitz, criminal defense attorney and founding partner

I’ve often felt like my destiny was to work as a public defender. From the day I walked into the basement at 451 Indiana Avenue, I felt like I was supposed to be there. However, my path to a job as a PDS attorney was not an easy one. Most of their attorneys had gone to Harvard or Yale and several had clerked for Supreme Court justices. On the other hand, I was all set to attend law school at American University. In fact, the one PDS lawyer I knew who’d gone to A.U. came up to me at my law school orientation and told me to try to get into a better school.

Journey of a Criminal Defense Lawyer in DC

As fate would have it, my friend and current law partner, who I’d known since the first day of college, had gotten into GW Law School from its waiting list. He figured that I should come too, so he simply asked GW’s admissions people to admit me as well. I’d almost not even made their waitlist because my father had thrown out the form I needed to fill out to accept the spot on it; I accepted a spot on the list on the very last day it was open. Anyway, they looked at their list, and once my friend said that I was already in town and would definitely come, they OK’d my admission.

I had a tremendous chip on my shoulder because I’d always thought of myself as the student that any school would want. Basically, my friend had arranged to have me shoved into the back of a large section of one of the largest law school classes in the country. I’m sure they were simply looking for the extra tuition. My pride almost didn’t allow me to accept, but in the back of my mind I knew this at least marginally improved my chances of getting a job at PDS.

I walked home from school every night that first year chanting to myself that I would work harder and be better than everyone who’d gotten into school the regular way. I literally killed myself working and ended up finishing in the top 10 percent of the class and made Law Review.

During my last year of school, I participated in the DC Law Students in Court Program, where we, with supervision, represented people accused of misdemeanors in DC Superior Court. I took all of my classes at night so I could devote as much time as possible to working in the clinic. We were only supposed to take three cases per semester, but I took 12 – 15, because I wanted to see if I had what it took to do this as a career.

Towards the end of the year, I applied to PDS. I was again put on a waitlist. Months passed and no decision was made. It’s funny though, once I made the waitlist at PDS, I figured that I was sort of destined to slide my way onto the path I wanted, kind of like the 6th round draft pick who ends up making the team.

In the summer of 1995, I attended the funeral of a relative (a law professor and renowned criminal defense attorney) of my friend and mentor at PDS. As I was paying my respects at the open casket, the PDS deputy director came up to me. As we leaned over the open casket, she asked me if I was still interested in the job since there was one remaining opening and it looked like the waitlist had been whittled down to me and one other person. I tried to get every connection I had at PDS to lobby for me.

I was in Austin, Texas doing working as a defense investigator on death penalty cases at the Texas Resource Center when I got the call that changed my life. I still have the offer letter on my desk.

This blog post is written by David Benowitz, founding partner and Washington DC criminal defense attorney. He received an LL.M in Trial Advocacy from Temple University, is a member of the National College for DUI Defense, and is a Board Certified Criminal Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy.

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