How does a high-priced legal team work?

How does a high-priced legal team work?

How does a high-priced legal team work?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 9 2005 6:22 PM

How Do Legal Teams Work?

Have my lawyer call my lawyer.

Smells like team spirit
Click image to expand.
Smells like team spirit

A legal defense fund has been set up to help former White House staffer I. Lewis Libby battle his recent federal indictment. Donations will go toward paying for a high-priced legal team that includes, among others, star attorneys Theodore Wells and William Jeffress. How does a legal team work?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.

A team leader delegates responsibility. If a criminal defendant has enough money, he can hire special lawyers for each element of a case. (Government prosecutors work in teams as well.) One lawyer might be particularly good at working a jury, so he'd do much of the talking in court. Others might have expertise with certain kinds of evidence: A case involving wiretaps would call for an attorney who knows the ins and outs of the laws that cover eavesdropping. If the prosecutors have an incriminating document, the defense team could bring in a lawyer who has worked with handwriting specialists. A third attorney could be in charge of poring over FBI interviews. And so on.


Though each lawyer typically has her own area of expertise, the whole team meets to discuss overall strategy. A "lead counsel" makes the final decisions, sometimes with the assistance of a "second chair"—his top lieutenant. Lead counsels are also the ones who build the team by recruiting people for each aspect of the case. At least one member has to be a local lawyer—and he'll have to ask the judge to admit ( pro hac vice) any colleagues who come in from another state.

Each attorney on the team might bring in associates from his or her law firm. These guys do the grunt work, like obtaining documents, researching legal briefs, and sifting through grand jury testimony. A high-powered team will also hire a staff of non-lawyers to serve as jury consultants, private investigators, and expert witnesses.

Large teams can split up to handle different phases of the case. The 30 or so attorneys who worked together to defend Timothy McVeigh against capital murder charges broke into two squads: One worked to get him acquitted, while the other prepared for his sentencing. (When a defendant in a capital case can't afford his own lawyers, the federal judge must appoint two lawyers instead of one to ensure he gets at least a tiny legal team.) The team can also hedge against a guilty verdict even before the trial begins. A specialist in appellate law might keep careful notes in case anything arises that could be brought up in a subsequent trial.

Can too many cooks spoil the broth? Not really. A large defense team has more expertise than a small one, and it gets things done more quickly. The lawyers on O.J. Simpson's "Dream Team" pushed for a quick trial because they knew the prosecution didn't have the manpower to assemble their case as quickly. One concern the lead counsel might have is that their team will seem like a bunch of bullies: Too many lawyers around the courtroom could intimidate a jury.

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Explainer thanks Jack King of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Jeralyn Merritt, and John Orsini of Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman.