If a lucky Powerball or Mega Millions ticket had landed in Mike Benz’s lap, he’d still be representing criminal defendants for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, where he worked from 2012 until early 2016.
“I always said that if I won the lottery, I would never leave the Defender’s Association,” Benz, ’12, said.
But the salary there was not going to provide a comfortable living for the family he started with his wife, Carla Wasko, ’12, also an attorney at the Defender Association. (Wasko is due to return to work from maternity leave in January.)
So three months before the birth of his twin sons in July, Benz took a much bigger risk than buying a lottery ticket. He started Benz Law LLC, working in a Broad Street Office that overlooks City Hall.
The practice, devoted solely to criminal defense, got off to a stronger start than Benz expected.
“I wasn’t expecting to get as many clients as quickly as I did,” Benz said. “The court appointments came pouring in. There was some success early on that gave me a little bit of a cushion that I wasn’t expecting.”
In the first six months, court appointments made up the bulk of Benz’s caseload. Bit by bit, though, other cases are trickling in through referrals, advertising and word-of-mouth.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate in getting business in the door,” Benz said, crediting law school faculty and classmates with some of the referrals that came his way.
It won’t hurt that Benz was named a 2017 Super Lawyer Rising Star in Criminal Defense.
Though Benz has handled only a handful of jury trials since launching his practice, he estimates that he’s represented 100 clients and has 50 to 100 open cases.
The cases range from minor misdemeanors and DUIs to felony charges, and indeed the first acquittal he won as a solo practitioner came from a sexual assault case.
“I don’t have a problem with representing someone because of any particular offense,” Benz said. “I don’t worry about whether they did it or not. No one says ‘Yes, I did exactly what the Commonwealth says I did.’ Most of my clients accused of horrible offenses have a different version of events, some are mentally ill, and some are in fact innocent. I think anybody could be accused of anything and whether they ‘did it’ or not, they should have a strong advocate. Some of my clients will go to jail at some point, but they must have a fair process in which they were well represented.”
Anyone contemplating a solo practice would be wise, Benz said, to do as he did and rent a suite with more experienced attorneys who can provide referrals and employ secretaries who Benz can pay on a per-diem basis to help out with administrative tasks.
It’s too soon to know if Benz’s gamble will pay off. Although his earnings have increased over his Defender’s Association pay, there’s always the possibility that a dry spell could hit.
But in the meantime, Benz said, there are lots of good days: the days when he wins a trial, the days when he’s able to clear every bit of work off his desk and Fridays.
And of course, Benz said, “pay day is always a good day.”