By

Chris Fialko

A few years ago, I instituted a new rule: before going to trial or sentencing, I visit the client’s home and have dinner at the kitchen table.

Why?

Because I learn so much more about the client. I see how he interacts with family. I see photographs on the wall. At dinner I hear family stories about the client. I learn nicknames, habits, and anecdotes.

In African-American homes, word gets out that the lawyer is there and friends and neighbors drop by. No matter how dire the case, there is something about a meal at the kitchen table that brings out some laughter and joy of life. (It has to be at the kitchen table, not the dining room table.)

If the case is heading to trial, then after dinner becomes a bull session, brainstorming. No matter how much I’ve studied discovery before, I get a new insight or two from these sessions.

I had a case in a rural mountain county once, and only when a neighbor dropped in (I think for some free dessert) did I learn who the likely “reliable informant” was, and why the guy was likely unreliable.

Our criminal justice system de-humanizes the accused. They are called “suspects” or “perpetrators” or “defendants.”  I need to humanize each client. Actually, re-humanize them for the jury or judge.

North Carolina 2020- Super Lawyers

Top 25 Charlotte

AN ALPHABETICAL LISTING OF THE CHARLOTTE AREA LAWYERS WHO RANKED TOP OF THE LIST IN THE 2020 NORTH CAROLINA SUPER LAWYERS NOMINATION, RESEARCH AND BLUE RIBBON REVIEW PROCESS

Cooney, III, James P., Womble Bond Dickinson, Charlotte

Culp, Heather W., Essex Richards, Charlotte

Davis, Edward B., Bell Davis & Pitt, Charlotte

Derr, Tricia Morvan, Lincoln Derr, Charlotte

Fialko, Christopher C., Fialko Law, Charlotte

Fuller, III, Robert W., Robinson Bradshaw, Charlotte

Greene, Michael J., Goodman Carr Laughrun Levine & Greene, Charlotte

Kutrow, Bradley R., McGuireWoods, Charlotte

Lam, Christopher C., Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, Charlotte

Lagress, S. Luke, Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, Charlotte

Marcus, Robert R., Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, Charlotte

McDowell, Valecia M., Moore & Van Allen, Charlotte

Miller, Jr., John R., Rayburn Cooper & Durham, Charlotte

Moss, Jr., Joseph W., Erwin Bishop Capitano & Moss, Charlotte

Owens, Jr., Raymond E., Higgins & Owens, Charlotte

Pantazis, Annemarie, Wilder Pantazis Law Group, Charlotte

Rayburn, Jr., C. Richard, Rayburn Cooper & Durham, Charlotte

Richey, Alice Carmichael, Alexander Ricks, Charlotte

Van Kampen, Joshua R., Van Kampen Law, Charlotte

Wester, John R., Robinson Bradshaw, Charlotte

Wyatt, III, James F., Wyatt & Blake, Charlotte

A couple of years ago, I walked into a Superior Courtroom in North Carolina that I hadn’t been in for a long while.  Sitting on the bench was a judge that I hadn’t seen in an even longer time.  This judge and I had been on opposite sides and fought cases against one another when he was just a prosecutor in the 1990s.

Upon spying me, the judge shouted, “Well, how the hell are you Counselor Fialko?” Caught off guard in the full courtroom, and without thinking, I replied, “Your honor, I’m just trying to defend the Constitution one client at a time.” He laughed, and said, “I see how that could be a full-time job.”

Since that day, I’ve been using that catch-phrase often, whenever I meet someone new or see someone I haven’t seen in a while. While I say it mostly to be funny and break the ice, it also serves as a barometer: the people who laugh and appreciate the comment tend to understand the crucial role of a criminal defense lawyer in our society. On the other hand, if my quip is greeted with frowning silence, I become immediately wary.

Thanks for reading.
-Chris Fialko

 

Chris Fialko was hired to try to limit the damage in a corporate bribery scheme. The client had already pled guilty in federal court and hired Chris Fialko to help at the sentencing hearing. Fialko traveled to Kansas to meet with the client’s wife, children, brothers, and sisters in order to learn more about his life. Fialko wrote a sentencing memorandum that also focused on his client’s lesser role, and submitted that the client profited far less than the co-defendants. Although he was facing 57-71 months under Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the judge gave a downward variance and sentenced the client to 41 months instead.

Around 15 years ago I decided to adopt the strategy of over-informing my clients.  It seems like a simple and obvious idea, but it’s not.  There are drawbacks.

First, having a detailed discussion of sentencing guideline punishments can make the client worry that his lawyer assumes he’s guilty.  I don’t.  But I’ve learned, especially in federal cases, that the client really needs to understand what she’s up against.

Second, the client may become discouraged.  I give my client what I call …

The Roller-Coaster speech:  Defending a criminal investigation will be a long and scary ride.  Some days will have good developments, and we’ll feel at the top of the ride, and some days bad things will occur, and we’ll feel down at the bottom.  It’s important to try like hell to keep an even keel.

Defending a criminal case requires making many decisions along the way, and the client and I need to keep a level head at each decision point.

I’ve found the strategy of keeping my client very informed of the law, the process, and the facts helps us reach the best result.

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