Seth Okin on Background and Training
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Maryland criminal defense attorney Seth Okin.
Where Have You Worked Or Trained In The Past That Prepared You For A Career In Criminal Defense?
Seth Okin: When I was young I had a very active imagination, which led me into an acting career. From the age of eight, I can remember doing shows and musical theater. I sang, played piano, and was involved in extensive community theater throughout junior high and high school. In my college years, I had the privilege of acting on stage at the Kennedy Center and that allowed me to become very comfortable in front of a crowd, and to be at ease in the courtroom. Stressful situations only make me stronger. In my acting career I always prepared for what ifs: what if I dropped a line? What if a line was dropped by someone else? My goal was always to memorize the entire script and know all the moving parts around me; it’s no different than court. The state has to disclose through discovery and information, their tapes, and their experts. So you know what’s coming, but it’s your job to be prepared. It’s your job to be able to argue your case, but truly, you want to be prepared to argue their case. Some of the best attorneys I know can argue both sides, that way when something comes up, they’re prepared. When there is question, they can cloud it with doubt. If you’re comfortable doing that and you’re prepared that way, you can be an incredible asset to your client. Acting made be comfortable being in front of people and the places that I’ve taken that have brought me to where I am today.
Where Did You Learn Your Trial And Courtroom Skills?
Seth Okin: When I first started law school, I was lucky enough to clerk for an attorney who involved me in everything that he did in his office. A lot of his work was mostly in collections work, bail bondsmen, and landlord/tenant claims. He also did a lot of property title work. He would empower me to learn, to listen, and to ask questions. From there I made a couple of friends that were doing criminal work and doing criminal law, and I was able to go to court with them and they taught to me and gave me hands-on experience working with evidence.
Also, in law school I took trial advocacy courses, I took on criminal work, and I involved myself as much as possible so I could learn. You want to be able to practice and not put anyone in harm’s way. You don’t want to get your first crack at it with a client who is facing 20 years to life in prison. You have to feel comfortable. I’ve been one of those people who is very humble, who knows to ask questions, to ask for help, to not take on a case alone that I couldn’t handle. Ultimately, I’m concerned with my client, but I’m very careful, I’m ultraconservative in the way that I operate; with a lot of studying, with a lot of reading, and with a lot of hands-on knowledge. I go to court and observe a trial simply because the trial is there. To have the opportunity to see two very skilled attorneys go at it; you need that, you need to be able to see those things. You need to be able to admit when a case is too much for you and bring in a second attorney to sit first chair so that you can learn more.
That’s what I’ve done for my entire career to date. When I have had a case that is a little bit too much for me, I’ve referred it to someone with a little bit higher skill level than I have and worked on it with them. I learn from it and go out on my own when I feel I’m ready.
Why Is Having Experience In The Courtroom Important For A Criminal Case?
Seth Okin: As far as a criminal case goes, you have to know evidence – that’s the single most important thing – from its presentation to the court, to its actual admission into court cases. You have to be able to know what can get in and what cannot. The state is going to try to admit as much evidence as possible, but if they don’t have the right evidence, if they don’t submit it the right way, or they don’t have the person there who is in charge of the records… There are exceptions, but everyone has heard of and understands the term ‘hearsay.’ [If the evidence is] not admissible, you need to know that and you need to be prepared to object to it. Your objection has to be timely, it has to be for a good cause, and you have to be able to explain it. You have to be able to either say to the judge, “Objection, hearsay,” or object for some other reason. If you can’t clearly do that, if you’re not fast enough to do that, something could get in, and if you could’ve prevented it, you’re failing your client.
We’re not perfect. Some things get in there and you wonder if you were able, at some point in time, to see that that it shouldn’t be; that’s the beauty of being able to appeal something, too. But you need that ability in trial work, even if it means getting a couple of your friends together to go through your case, make arguments, and let them argue against you. The submission of evidence is what ultimately makes or breaks the case.