This week, I had a conversation with Ellen Brotman, who is without question one of Philadelphia’s top criminal defense attorneys. Ellen has over 20 years of experience defending clients in the areas of white-collar crime and government investigations. She was an assistant federal defender with the Defender Association of Philadelphia before she left, opened up her own firm, and later joined Montgomery McCracken as a partner. Ellen serves on the board of directors for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and on the editorial advisory board for the Champion magazine. She serves on the Executive Committee of the Federal Bar Association’s Criminal Law Committee and co-chairs the ABA White Collar Crime Subcommittee on Tax Fraud. Ellen has been recognized in Best Lawyer every year consistently since 2007 and in Pennsylvania’s Super Lawyers every year since 2008. She is a regular lecturer on white-collar defense and ethics all over the country. Ellen’s passion for her clients and their cause comes through loud and clear. She is the very kind of champion of justice that any client would be lucky to have.
What is the most significant change that you have seen for women in criminal defense? And what changes do you think still need to occur for women in this field?
The most significant change is the number of women who are entering the field. We are starting to have a critical mass that makes practicing in this field more enjoyable and more profitable. More enjoyable because we feel less isolated and marginalized, and more profitable in that we are able to be a referral pool for each other. Also, as more women gain prominence, it’s easy to see the different attitudes and strengths that a woman can bring to a case and that expands our opportunities also.
What do you consider the most important attributes for any great criminal lawyer?
Imagination, tenacity, and the ability to communicate with a wide range of actors: judges, prosecutors, clients, investigators, witnesses, and family members.
What advice would you give to a young attorney considering a career in criminal defense?
It’s not for everyone. You have to believe in the primacy of your client’s rights even when you don’t believe in his innocence. I’m personally driven by a healthy skepticism of the government and a philosophical position that imprisonment is inherently evil and vastly overused in this country. Also, you have to feel comfortable taking the unpopular position and willing to fight the judge, the prosecutor, the press and the jury.
Do you think women bring something unique to the representation of criminal clients?
On a macro level, I think women and men are different and have different strengths and skill sets. On a micro level, I think each lawyer has to decide who they are and where their convictions lie and practice from there.
Do you think there are cases where having a woman criminal defense attorney is an advantage for a client?
Yes. For violent or sexual offenses, a woman is a comforting presence for a jury. But I think the credibility of the lawyer is the most important thing when trying to persuade the jury to see your client as a human being.
When did you realize that you were a successful criminal defense attorney? And what does it mean to you to find success as a criminal defense attorney?
Early on in my career I was very lucky to work in a boutique litigation firm where I was given the opportunity to argue in appellate courts and try cases. I was terrified all the time until I started to get good results and I realized that my boss knew I could handle the work and I was pretty good at what I was doing. I measure my success in terms of the gratitude of my clients and the respect of my peers. I feel very blessed to have earned both over the course of my career.
What do you find most challenging about representing clients charged in white-collar criminal cases?
What people don’t realize is that federal judges don’t generally sentence white-collar cases. Instead, they sentence drugs and gun cases, young men and women who come from terrible circumstances with few life options facing terrible sentences. It’s hard to get a judge to sympathize with our educated, well-off clients who’ve hurt other people out of greed.
Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire, what made them stand out to you? Why did they inspire you?
I’m inspired by all my criminal defense brothers and sisters, but I know my sisters had to work harder to get where they are!
What specific representation of a client has most stayed with you through the years and why?
In 2011, in a court appointed case, I won a reversal of a conviction and judgment of acquittal for a young woman who was dating a drug dealer and was convicted of money laundering. She was prosecuted only because she wouldn’t cooperate. Calling her to tell her that her conviction had been reversed and knowing that she was walking out of prison that day will carry me through to the end of my career!
If you could go back and give one piece of career or trial advice to your 30-year old self what would it be?
Believe in yourself and don’t try to be anyone but yourself in the courtroom.