Even if my answer was a disappointment, the person in question would quickly recover with the follow-up, "Well, I could never defend a guilty person." My instinct, at least early in my legal studies would be to quickly agree. After all, who would admit to wanting to defend, say, a serial killer or other similarly horrific criminal.
However, as I began to mature in my legal studies, I learned something that every law student knows: there are two sides to every story. Facts can be interpreted in different ways. Circumstances which appear to be simple are often, in reality,complicated and convoluted. People that appear to be guilty sometimes aren't.
And this, by the way, is one of the core skills of any lawyer- the ability to identify in any given situation, the "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" arguments. Authors Jeremy Paul and Richard Michael Fischel, in their best-selling legal studies book, "Getting to Maybe- How to Excel on Law School Exams, describe this "arguing in the alternative" in effective detail. Essentially, an lawyer should always be ability identify and articulate both sides of the law, and both sides of the facts, in order to anticipate the other side's arguments and effectively represent a client.
The failure to anticipate both sides of any given situation is called, in the vernacular, "jumping to a conclusion." One generally so "jumps" when one makes assumptions, which in reality, should be identified and dissected before reaching any conclusion.
I describe this phenomenon in my book "Law School Labyrinth". As an example, a client seeking a divorce mentions to her lawyer that she has three children. The lawyer concludes that child custody will be a pivotal matter in the proceeding. However, in reality,the three children are ages 27, 24 and 33, respectively. Clearly, the lawyer has jumped to the conclusion that the youthful-appearing client had referred to minor children.
Which brings me back to the "I could never represent a guilty person." A guilty person isn't "guilty" until a judge or jury decides that they are guilty. Until that point, under the U.S. legal system precepts, the person is innocent and deserves adequate representation. If I decide that person is guilty before judgment, I have "jumped to a conclusion".
I realize that there are "smoking gun" cases where the defendant is caught in the act red-handed. But again, there are two sides to every story. This is why what we call "affirmative defenses" evolved- insanity, self-defense, duress and the like. Even if the defendant is caught with the murder weapon in hand, with the victim lying dead at the defendant's feet, there may be an alternative explanation.
A good lawyer is relentless in the sifting of facts, sorting through each one, in order to properly analyze the matter and represent the client. This is the point of our legal system- to get to the truth and achieve justice in any given matter. And lawyers are the means to that end.
You may be asking yourself, "What about a situation where the defendant himself admits his guilt?" Again, there may be applicable defenses.
That said, as any lawyer knows, a licensed attorney is subject to ethical rules (such as candor before a tribunal and the prohibition against the presentation of evidence the lawyer knows to be false). A lawyer cannot breach these rules without subjecting himself to discipline and possibly, the loss of his license to practice law. The reality is that these ethical rules help ensure the administration of justice.
So, the response to the seemingly simple and inarguably assertion that "I could never represent a guilty person," is not so simple. But the analysis involved in reaching resolution is exactly what drew me to law practice in the first place. Things are never as simple as they seem (except perhaps to simpletons). The role of the lawyer is to identify the ambiguity in facts and law, but at the same to engage in their work such that they are participants and not detriments in the administration of justice.
And if you are thinking about law school, be sure and pick up a copy of my book, Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing, March 31, 2009).