How We Interview Trial Counsel

Ineffective counsel claims are probably the least fun part of the job at the state level in Georgia. Unlike the Federal system, where an evidentiary hearing on an IAC claim is often left for habeas proceedings, Georgia IAC must be raised at the first available opportunity, or it is deemed to be waived. This system has its benefits, but it also creates pressure on the appellate attorney to raise ineffective assistance of counsel, regardless of the issue’s viability. Having done many IAC interviews over the years, I have some basic things that I have learned to do in my approach.

  • Recognize that this interview is part of the job. Awkwardness can feel like an inevitable part of this process. But it does not have to be horrible. There are some things that I always acknowledge up front. What I am doing here is part of the process. And the lawyer you are about to interview had a difficult job to do. Criminal defense can feel like a thankless task. And if the trial attorney is a public defender or was appointed to the case, it probably feels even more thankless. I always like to start the interview by expressing gratitude to the trial lawyer for doing this job and for all that he did to try to protect the client’s right to a fair and meaningful trial. No trials are perfect. And just as the lawyer did his job to protect the client, you are there to do the same.
  • Listen. Lawyers are great at making arguments and asking questions. We sometimes are not the best listeners. Just as you have worked hard to prepare for the interview, you should work hard to listen to what the lawyer tells you in the interview. And it can be good to demonstrate how well you are listening. If the lawyer gives you a lengthy answer, stop at points along the way to say, “okay, let me see if I understand what you are saying.” Then give the fairest possible short summary of what the lawyer just said that you can possible do.
  • You Are Not There to Argue. Part of listening is to encourage the lawyer to talk to you. So, if you think that the lawyer is mistaken about his understanding of the law or memory of the facts, you should not argue. The law is what it is, and the facts are what they are. And you will have the opportunity to argue all of this to the Court at some point in the future. If the lawyer is mistaken about what happened or doesn’t remember, it can be okay to show him the transcript. But do so with an aim of being helpful, not to argue.
  • If You’ve Been in the Lawyer’s Shoes, Don’t Forget That Experience. There is nothing fun about this part of the appellate process. It’s not fun to be interviewed toward IAC, and it’s not fun to do the interview. It is important to think about what it’s like to be answering the questions and not to get caught up on what it is like to be asking them .
  • Take a Witness With You. It is a maximum in the law that no interview with a witness should be without a witness to the interview. You don’t want to be the sole impeaching witness if the lawyer later changes an answer
  • Elicit the Lawyer’s Persective on the Other Issues. Reading the trial transcript is a poor substitute for living through the trial. The lawyer lived through it. Don’t lose the opportunity to ask the lawyer for her perspective on the trial. What did she think was unfair about the trial? What does she think the appellate issues are? Another good question is, “Mr. Lawyer, if you were in my shoes doing this appeal, what would you do?” Often this question is met with a blank stare. But occasionally you will hear something that you hadn’t thought of before that point
  • Be Grateful for the Interview. No matter how you think it went, be sure that think the lawyer for his time. The lawyer did not have to sit for an interview. So, make sure that you thank the lawyer for letting you interview him. And, again, think the lawyer for being a criminal defense lawyer. It may be that you are the only person in the case who has ever told him thank you.

When the interview is over, I get my notes together and process them as soon as possible. I also try to follow back up with additional questions as soon as possible after the interview. There is no way to make this process fun. But I find that the steps I have outlined above make it a bit more palatable.

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