Both my parents are criminal defense lawyers. My mother had her own practice in San Diego until she had me and brain cancer in quick succession. My father is still working for the county of San Diego as a public defender, as he has for over 35 years.
When I tell people this, some think it's interesting and move on. Some make jokes about me growing up rich (I didn't). Many others are horrified, and many have questions and assumptions that make me sad, or downright offended. Then again, it's hard to blame people. With courtroom dramas like Law & Order, everything is clear-cut. When was the last notable crime, real or fictional, where we rooted for the defense without some obvious prejudice being directed at their client (usually racial or gender related)?
People in the court system have usually been there before, starting in their teens. It's what they know and what the public expects of them. Many are addicts, and all are very sad people, with the system written in such a way as to provide maximum confusion. There is a reason the bar exam is so hard. One must study for years to get a grip on the often circular logic that makes court resemble a religious ritual or intricate performance.
Everyone has their role, chosen by them and enforced by strict written rules and various unwritten ones to round out the insanity. The police collect evidence that you're guilty, the prosecutor works with the police and the victim to prove it beyond reasonable doubt, the judge keeps order, translates the jargon for and instructs the jury, and hopefully doles out fair sentences.
The defense protects the client's rights, translates the jargon for them, calculates risk vs reward, negotiates plea bargains for them, does research, and hires expert witnesses when necessary, as well as getting a hold of witness for their side of the story, and most importantly, searches for the doubt that can save an innocent person from prison, or a guilty person from an unreasonably long sentence. They know the possible outcomes, and just what qualifies as reasonable doubt to most juries. In that courtroom, if you are the defendant, your lawyer is the only person on your side.
The question my parents have been asked more times than I could possibly count is how they defend the guilty. This is making a big assumption. How are they to know if they are guilty? Even if the client swears they are, false confessions are a bit of an epidemic, especially with the Reid method of interrogation being so popular (it has a nasty habit of scaring you into creating false memories). The only way to know for sure is to be there as the crime is committed, which would make it a terrible ethical violation to defend. (Unless, of course, you are your own lawyer, which few lawyers would do for themselves. They say that's how you get a fool defending you.) Even if the trial concludes with a Not Guilty verdict, it's an entirely separate process to prove Factual or Legal Innocence.
My parents have helped people with their chosen profession. Not guilty verdicts are often rare (depending on the county), but with effective negotiation plea bargains can minimize pain and hassle, and are often the best choice. No one in the courtroom starts out on the defense's side, especially for my dad's cases. He gets the goriest, the most emotional, the most brutal of cases, because he has been with the county longer than anyone else. His clients are the rapists and murderers and abusers.
I grew up hearing about the real life SVU, knowing that you were most likely to be murdered by a significant other, that drugs can lead to unimaginable horror, that a stupid mistake could cost everything you hold dear. I also grew up hearing about criminals as people, not perps. I was told of their lives and families, shook their hand when I watched my dad at work, a rare treat for a crime drama junkie like I naturally became.
My parents wanted me to see things for myself, without the exaggerations of prime time. I was told of the terrible parts of the system, the unfairness and disregard for prisoner's rights, the horrific conditions in our prisons, exactly how much every addict we lock up --instead of treating -- costs the system, how the death penalty is expensive, inefficient, and generally a tragic concept (not to mention the unspeakable consequence of being wrong).
There is always another side. Have you seen Rashomon? It's probably the best portrayal of the average courtroom experience. Bits and pieces, often contradicting and colored by assumptions and flaws of memory. It can't be helped, but it can be mediated.
Still, I have been shocked at the vitriol that has come from people not satisfied with this reality. People who have called my parents evil, devils, greedy (my dad makes a traditional government salary, my mom hasn't practiced in 20 years, we are not rich), con artists, racist (my dad's clients are always poor, often immigrants, often here illegally, usually addicts), immoral, sometimes with some antisemitism on the side since I am a Jew.
We cannot lose our empathy for the downtrodden. People commit crimes for a reason, be it passion, desperation, addiction, pleasure, business, bad decisions, or simply bad luck. Don't judge the person trying to balance the system. It's kind of shooting the messenger, and it discounts the humanity that is the right of everybody in the courtroom, not just the side you admire.