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Connecting Women in Criminal Law

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Evan Jenness

Evan Jenness is a criminal defense attorney from Los Angeles, California. For over twenty-five years she has focused her career on defending clients and corporations accused of criminal offenses. She has extensive experience in federal court and focuses primarily on representing clients charged in white-collar matters. Before starting her own firm, she served as a deputy federal defender in Los Angeles. Evan is a past board member of NACDL and is currently co-chair of the Ethics Advisory Committee. She lectures and publishes extensively on both federal criminal defense and ethics. She has been recognized in Best Lawyers in America and Southern California Super Lawyers. Evan has earned a national reputation in the white-collar field and is known and respected as a tenacious advocate with a very strong knowledge of the law. Many years ago, I was introduced to Evan Jenness on a list serve. I remember asking a friend, “Who is that guy posting such intelligent content on the list serve, I save all his posts?” and I was thrilled to learn it was in fact a woman. And as I have been known to say when I am in the company of a true defender….she is the real deal!

What do you love most about being a criminal defense lawyer?

The challenges of taking on powerful entities and individuals in defending my clients and vindicating their rights.  Victory is easy to love, but I would be a criminal defense lawyer even if I succeeded less often.

What is the most significant shift that you have seen for women in criminal defense over the twenty-seven years you have been practicing?

There were very few women criminal defense attorneys when I started practicing, and most were junior lawyers.  The first generation of women defenders has now ascended, the second wave is coming of age professionally, and there is a large and increasing community of new female lawyers focusing on criminal defense practice.  It’s been a beautiful evolution to experience.

Do you think women bring unique skill and attributes to defending the criminally accused?

I’m not sure I could pinpoint specific skills, but I feel confident that women’s participation in the practice area has enhanced the field.

Have you had women role models? How has this impacted your career?

Women in high profile positions across the spectrum have always been a source of inspiration for me – from influential or powerful ones like Aung San Suu Kyi and Angela Merkel, to the late vocalist Miriam Makeba, who reflected the indefatigable spirit Soweto during Apartheid and thereafter. When I think about succeeding against the odds, I’m often inspired by considering the many women who have succeeded against odds greater than any I encounter. And, of course, there are the many talented women judges and defense attorneys I’ve been privileged to work over the years.

What do you think it takes for a woman to succeed in private practice in this field? 

A love of the practice and willingness to work hard.  It’s a challenging field and unpredictable circumstances are often the norm – whether it’s a client’s offices being raided in the early morning, investigation surprises, a document dump of tardy discovery right before trial, surprise witnesses, or any of the many other twists and turns of criminal matters.  It’s also still a largely male-dominated practice area.  Maybe some women can successfully transcend the gender barrier, but I’ll never make it into any boys’ club. One positive consequence is the sisterhood that has developed among many women defenders.  I’ve also found that gender is mostly a non-issue with clients, who care more about the quality of their defense than social issues.

What advice would you give a young woman who wants to specialize in white-collar defense?

Be persistent and take every opportunity that arises for getting a foot in the door. What do you see as the paths to specializing in white-collar defense? Be a public lawyer for a few years, whether a public defender or a prosecutor.

What is your proudest moment in representing a client? 

The highest profile proud moment that I’ve had was when a jury returned not guilty verdicts across the board for my client following a lengthy federal trial after his corporate employer had pled guilty.  I knew he deserved vindication, but the prosecutors and judge were formidable opponents throughout the case.

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of career advice what would it be?

I probably should have been more deferential to some of the curmudgeon judges who tried to bully me when I was a young lawyer.  Watching savvy defense lawyers like Marilyn Bednarski, with whom I was a DFPD, interfacing with those same judges showed me a more sophisticated way of not being pushed around.

What do you consider your most valuable weapon in your defense arsenal?

Courtroom experience and self-confidence based on years of practice.

Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire what made them stand out to you? What about them inspired you?

Their talents and commitment to defense practice.

Moment you knew you had made it?

I’ve made it?! I hope that day never comes, because I’ll have to head off to find a new challenge.

One thing people who know you professionally don’t know about you?

I began traveling the globe at about 6 weeks old, spent many years of my childhood living in Africa, and have a multi-racial family.  I learned early on that we are all one people, whatever our differences.  I also know, each day, how fortunate I am.


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