Six LA-area criminal defense attorneys recount the joys and heavy workloads of being prosecutors and public defenders
Published in 2020 Southern California Rising Stars Magazine on June 18, 2020
Long before Aaron McAllister became an attorney, he watched his brother lose a Division I football scholarship after being pressured into a plea deal on allegations of selling marijuana. His public defender barely knew his name, and he was convicted without a trial.
“He wanted to be a teacher and had all these goals and plans,” McAllister recalls.
“I just saw how it hurt him even after he served his time. It made me really passionate about criminal defense.”
As a result, one of McAllister’s first jobs after getting his J.D. was at the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., where he represented clients in high-stakes disciplinary hearings in the middle of a jail. Later, he opened an eponymous criminal defense firm in LA. “With my own firm, I would limit my caseload,” he says. “I don’t want to take on your case if I don’t have the time to look into it and really know you as a person.”
Super Lawyers interviewed six LA-area lawyers who have been public attorneys—PDs, like McAllister, or prosecutors—and who now work as criminal defense lawyers. None would trade their public work experience for anything.
Oh, and McAllister was finally able to help his brother, who, he adds with a laugh, “sells marijuana now—but he sells it legally.”
Why Go Public?
Andrew Leventhal, The Leventhal Firm; Law Offices of the LA County Public Defender (2008-2015): I always wanted to be a trial attorney, and I knew the best thing you can do [for that] is be a prosecutor or be a public defender. I’ve always been passionate about standing up for people against bullies—particularly standing up for people against the power of the government.
Lisa Zhao Liu, Law Offices of Lisa Z. Liu; Kern County District Attorney’s Office (2011), Tulare County District Attorney’s Office (2011-2014): I thought I wanted to be an environmental lawyer, and I went to a school that was known for environmental law. But my best grade was in criminal law, and that professor told me I had a creative eye and would make a great criminal lawyer.
Hart J. Levin, The Law Offices of Hart J. Levin; Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office (2004-2012): In law school, most people were looking for big-firm jobs over the summer, but that sort of thing was not appealing to me. One of my friends got married and sat me next to somebody who was a DA for about 30 years. She and I had a good conversation, and she worked on organized crime, and on the following Monday she said, “Come work for me as a law clerk.” We worked in the organized crime unit, as well as a unit called Crimes Against Police Officers, on really interesting cases involving the Irish Mob, the Jewish Mob, the Nazi Low Riders gang and the Russian Mob. And some high-end murders and tortures.
Aaron P. McAllister, Law Office of Aaron P. McAllister; Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (2009-2010): My dad had a group home, and the kids who would live with us were in the juvenile-delinquency system. Those were basically my roommates growing up. I didn’t see what they did to be sent to the group home; I just saw brothers and friends. To me, it was just people that made mistakes. My understanding now is that most of the kids had serious felony offenses, although my dad couldn’t tell me what they were. But at the group home, they excelled. At Thanksgiving dinner [years later], I was speaking to somebody who had just graduated from law school, and he was telling me how much he loved it. I knew I didn’t want to do biomedical engineering anymore. That’s where I made the connection: “If I’m a lawyer, I could be a public defender. I could do defense work and help out people similar to the ones my dad helped.”
Getting the Job
Levin: The final interview was with the actual district attorney. I remember walking in there and the first thing he says to me is, “Your résumé says you speak Spanish.” Now, I do speak some Spanish—I’m definitely not fluent. He says, “Go ahead and tell me to take a seat over there, in Spanish.” I was able to do that without thinking and he said, “Wow, OK, good.” Once I was able to pass that hurdle, the interview was a piece of cake.
Meghan Blanco, Law Offices of Meghan Blanco; U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California in Los Angeles (2009-2014): I worked at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher straight out of law school, and there was a hiring freeze at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for several years; I left Gibson when the hiring freeze was lifted. Our office happened to have a ton of federal prosecutors, and the former U.S. attorney lateraled in as a partner. It was really just dumb luck that I was able to make it in with that group.
Liu: The LA DA is very, very saturated—I’ve heard 1,400 attorneys. Kern County, which is two hours away, is actually quite small. I interviewed with them and got a job on the spot.
Leventhal: I’ve had my name on a four-figure number of cases, like many other public defenders.
Diana Weiss Aizman, Aizman Law Firm; Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office (2008-2012): I was assigned to a DUI court, which is the Metropolitan Courthouse downtown. After about two years, I was transferred to the San Fernando branch, which handled all kinds of misdemeanors—everything from theft to prostitution.
Blanco: I was on a little over 100 cases. If you’re coming from state practice, that may not seem like a lot, but for federal practice it’s a ton. They varied from smaller cases like bank robberies or drug smuggling to more complex corruption and civil rights cases.
Levin: As a deputy DA, you’re handling about 50 cases a day. One case was an interesting one. This guy was Jewish, but he was so good at what he did, and so devious as a mobster, that he became head of a Nazi Low Rider gang. He was running the white-supremacy gang, which was very strange, but he was a brutal, brutal person. He had an affair with the head of the Russian Mob’s wife, and it was discovered. The person who leaked the information was a friend of his, and to get the information from his friend, he essentially stabbed him in the throat, but let him live on his couch for three days, just bleeding out slowly. Once the guy did die, he put him in a hermetically sealed trash can and he stored it in the Russian Mob wife’s storage unit—the body was upside down, so the head just blew up. And he was defending himself. So that was how I got acquainted with everything. He did go to prison.
Liu: I did up to 200 cases, sometimes, a day. Tulare County is just so backed up and they have low staff, so everyone’s doing high volume. Any given time, I had 100 cases set for trial.
Levin: I worked at Compton, and that was getting thrown into the fire, because right away you’re doing gang cases and gun cases and there’s murder and rapes and some of it happens on the courthouse property. It’s very volatile and very rough. You’re just doing trials nonstop. You’d literally be in court and have 50 to 100 cases a day. Someone would walk up behind you and tap your shoulder and say, “Here is the trial for you, a jury is waiting,” and you’re supposed to go over and pick the jury without reading the file.
McAllister: The biggest issue with the Public Defender Service was way too many cases for each attorney. I would tell people, “Don’t leave my office, because as soon as you leave, I’m going to have to work on somebody else’s case and not be able to get back to yours.” You would see files in my office everywhere on the floor, on the desk, just a mess. I had hundreds of people.
Down to Cases
Levin: A guy on parole was arrested for domestic violence, and if he got convicted, essentially, he’d go back to prison. So the stakes were very high, even though it was just a misdemeanor. During the trial, I got an offer to work on a TV show, Outlaw, so I took a couple days off and worked with Jimmy Smits, where I was the legal adviser for the show. He gave a great closing argument, really super-dramatic, to the jury: “That day, she went to the police for justice, and today, I’m coming to you for justice.” And he pounds the side of the jury box. I go back to the trial to give my closing argument, knowing it’s a dead-bang loser. I just recited the lines from the TV show—I just did Jimmy’s speech. I said, “That day, she came to the police for justice, and today, I’m coming to you for justice.” And I pounded the table. Then the jury deliberated for 12 minutes, came back and announced, “Guilty.” Very surprising! The victim was in the audience and she had a seizure. The paramedics had to be called and the bailiff had to jump over the walls to attend to her. … I went back to the show and told them what happened and they couldn’t believe it. Jimmy went on The Tonight Show and told Jay Leno the story and he got big applause.
McAllister: [In D.C.], we would have to go into the jail and do disciplinary hearings in front of the hearing officers. It was a pretty tense scene. You hear all these people who were incarcerated yelling in the background, and you go into a room, into a hearing, and you’re arguing in front of a board where sometimes there are two or three officers. That process was frustrating, because the hearing officer was actually the judge. It’s basically the prosecutors making the decision. They would argue against you, and then they would decide if they want to agree with themselves or you. Every case was an uphill battle.
Blanco: A really big case I had was a former chief counsel for ICE—a lawyer, a federal employee who represented himself as a judge—who was taking a combination of bribes and kickbacks to get people into the country. He used his position to dismiss cases for really huge amounts of money. The people who he was taking the money from couldn’t afford to pay his fees. One of the victims was a woman who was paying for her daughter to come in [to the U.S.], and he quoted her some astronomical amount to do it and she wasn’t able to. So she was working for him as a housekeeper. It was almost like indentured servitude. She was trying to slowly work it off. He received the second-largest corruption sentence in U.S. history at that time—almost 20 years.
Liu: There was a very old case—HS11550, being under the influence of a controlled substance—that I inherited. As the new DDA on this case, I called the officer to introduce myself and to state that if there’s anything about this case that he remembered to please let me know. The officer responded, “I’m no longer an officer because I was fired for excessive force and lying on a police report; do I still have to come for this jury trial?” I hung up and told my supervisor the officer’s statement. My supervisor responded that I did not need to disclose this to the defense as the conduct that caused the firing was not due to conduct in this case. I did not feel comfortable with that and disclosed the statement to the defense. The case ended up being dismissed.
Why Go Private?
Leventhal: If I could have been a public defender for life, I would have. But I have this situation where I have over two Ferraris’ worth of student loan debt, my loans were getting bigger and capitalizing interest, and I was still living in a studio after seven years in the public defender’s office.
Blanco: I knew what went into the investigation. I knew what potential holes were. I wanted to get my feet wet tearing those cases apart as a defense attorney.
McAllister: When I started my own firm, it was so I could help people fully. I would do fewer cases but I would make a bigger difference. And the more I started talking to clients and digging into cases, the more I started seeing civil rights violations. Some of my clients would have injuries, so I started asking more and more of them, “What happened when you were arrested?” A lot of times they would be beaten, tased, sometimes shot, choked. It seemed like a lot of these clients didn’t bring up their injuries because they didn’t think it was relevant to their criminal case, and they thought it was OK for the police to do this to them because they had seen it happen so many times before. As I started seeing more and more of this, I expanded my practice into civil rights cases.
Liu: I wanted to do the right thing for the people of California and my clients. In order to do the right thing, I needed to go out on my own so I can follow my own moral and ethical code.
Aizman: About eight years ago, I made the decision to become my own boss. That was really the driving force.
The Private Challenges
Leventhal: I was scared beyond belief to leave the public defender’s office: “Is it going to be hard to get criminal cases? Am I going to have to get new clients all the time? Are people actually going to call me? Am I going to be able to make enough money?” But I felt like, you know, Shawshank Redemption, right, brother? Get busy living or get busy dying.
Blanco: Oh God, so different. At the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I would be in the office most of the day. I’d have meetings with agents, revealing documents, writing memos, reading documents. It was very stationary. Today, I was out in the desert, I was at the border conducting interviews, I was in three different federal facilities meeting with clients, and I was in court. On Tuesday, I’m going with a group of investigators to Mexico to interview people in preparation for a trial. So you’re on your feet a lot more.
Levin: DUI cases were easy to do, and that would allow me to take on more complicated cases and still pay the bills.
Down to Cases II
Leventhal: I did a jury trial where I was defending another lawyer, [who] absolutely would have lost their license to practice law if they were convicted. The case wasn’t incredibly strong for us, but I was able to acquit the client, and that was an amazing feeling—to be able to save this person’s career, livelihood, family, everything.
Blanco: I was on one of the big RICO cases in the Central District. My client was indicted along with dozens of other people in a conspiracy revolving around the Frogtown gang. We had millions of documents in discovery, tons of wires, it was a multi-agency investigation that started close to a decade before I got on the case. I got on the case, just to try it, 45 days before trial. I think the judge thought I was crazy getting in there that [late]. We went to trial and walked on it. He was found not guilty of everything.
Levin: This grandfather came to me and said, “Here’s the issue. My son had a baby with a woman 18 years ago. My son was a drug addict. So was she. The baby was taken to the state. My son was given visitation to the child, who was probably 2, supervised with a social worker.” They allegedly went to an arcade, and the son took the child to the restroom and never came back. So he was wanted for kidnapping. And they suspected him of going to Europe. The grandfather was saying, “My phones have been tapped for years, they’ve been trying to find this guy forever. The child wants to go to college now and can’t use her real name. But her name, if it pops up anywhere, would be on Interpol and they’d arrest this father immediately.” We resolved it in such a way that she could live her life in the way she wanted and also protect her father, which is what she wanted.
The Importance of Going Public
McAllister: I would definitely advise an attorney to do public defender work or criminal defense work, but only if you truly care about the client and understand the collateral consequences of a conviction. You have somebody’s liberty and life in your hands. If you’re not prepared to do everything within your power to help your client, that’s not the type of work you should be doing.
Liu: The DA’s office provided the foundation to build my successful criminal defense practice. Without their training, I would not be able to serve my clients well, because I wouldn’t know what the District Attorney is thinking.
Aizman: A perspective you have as a prosecutor that you don’t have anywhere else is understanding the investigative process and how law enforcement works—filing guidelines, what prosecutors are looking for, where the important details that are going to matter are, what level the charges are.
Levin: It would be challenging to just start out at criminal defense. You have to have a lot of good connections and be ready to weather a long storm and potentially go without business for a long time. But the DA’s office itself is amazing training. For new attorneys, they’re not going to get trial experience unless they’re a public defender or district attorney. Otherwise, they spend 90% of their time prepping for trial, never to actually go to trial, so it’s a waste. You’ve got to get ready to be thrown in there and have things go sideways and respond quickly.
Blanco: No way I’d be able to do this if I didn’t have that experience.
Leventhal: If you want to be a lifelong criminal defense attorney, there is no better experience and training system than being a public defender. I owe everything to the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office for who I am as an attorney.