Practitioner Profile: Ayah Innab
Ayah Innab has been with Rosenberg & Fayne since she was in law school—she started as a clerk and is now the firm’s sole full-time criminal defense Associate. She explored different avenues of criminal law while in law school, working in small private firms and at federal and state public defenders. She considers public defenders to be siblings in this work but felt private practice gave her more opportunities for training and mentorship, and exposed her to more diverse cases. In private practice, when you are directly supervised by someone, you can be exposed to more types of crimes, from misdemeanor DUIs to felony murder.
Ms. Innab was drawn to criminal defense practice in part because it keeps her on her toes. She loves that criminal cases are inherently interesting and her work exposes her to new things every day. The field demands that she learn about many subjects—from studying finance to represent clients charged with financial crimes, to reading up on the science behind fingerprint evidence. Perhaps most importantly, criminal law allows her to help people directly. Ms. Innab acknowledges that the criminal legal system is broken and difficult to navigate, which is why her clients don’t want to be pushed along, they want to be educated at every step of the process so they can make educated decisions. She loves that this field gives her the opportunity to work directly with all types of people—people from all walks of life, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, and nationalities.
As passionate as she is about her work, Ms. Innab is clear-eyed about the challenges inherent in working in criminal defense. Generally, she says, the system is built against you as a defendant and thus as a defense attorney—the way the law is enforced is always in favor of the state rather than the defendant. The biggest obstacle she faces is judges not taking the time to understand the defendant as an actual person standing before them and not seeing things from her perspective—many are afraid to set precedent, no matter how legally sound the argument. For Ayah personally, it is an uphill battle to work in an outdated system as a young woman of color. She recounts her experiences not being respected as an attorney—clients not believing her, being called an assistant, and facing a lack of respect from the state and judges, who consistently give deference to older attorneys. She notes the uncomfortable experience of walking into a courtroom where she and, often, her client are the only people of color.
In these situations, she encourages young attorneys who share her identities to stand their ground and reinforce that they are an attorney. In the courtroom, her approach is to kill them with kindness, to avoid being labeled with stereotypes that you are unreasonable, and people don’t want to work with you. As an opinionated person, this is challenging, but she states sometimes you have to understand the time and place for certain remarks, for the sake of her clients and her career.
Her advice for law students interested in criminal defense is to acknowledge that it is a difficult field. She encourages people to consider the realities of the stress, difficult subject matter, pay, and the need to be on call, and to get as much exposure as you can in law school so you can see what you’re really getting into. She emphasizes not to be afraid to try as many different kinds of legal fields as you can and take the time to explore. Not only is law school a unique time to pursue your interests without consequences, but it will help you in your career if you become a criminal attorney—you may be able to help clients with additional issues that they face outside the scope of their criminal case.
After her first year in practice, her advice to other criminal defense attorneys is not to feel helpless. Because defense attorneys are tied to their clients, to the bench, and to deals the state offers, she says, we tend not to file complaints or stand up when there are suspicions of ethical or legal issues because we know it can affect the way we are treated for the remainder of our career, and this could create risks for our clients. If someone did something wrong, and they took an oath to do it right, she says, you have a right to say something. By us not saying something, we’re giving them more power than they deserve. People think the police and the state’s attorney’s office are the only ones enforcing the law, but defense attorneys are enforcing the law on the other side—ensuring that defendants get the legal protections they are entitled to.
Ultimately, however, there are three things she wants people to know about the kind of attorney she is. First, she had to fight every step of the way to be here and wants her clients to know she will fight for them. Second, coming from a first-generation American family and knowing a lot of people who had run-ins with crimes, she doesn’t judge. The piece of paper that outlines their charges is one-sided and has none of her clients’ insight. Third, she wants to be an attorney with integrity and is not scared to fight for her clients. She believes preparation is everything – in court, she’s seen that if you prepare, you can out-prepare a good, more experienced attorney.
Her P.S.—Don’t be a criminal defense attorney! We tend to want to do this job because it is captivating, but she wants people to understand when they come into it, that it’s not a great work-life balance and it exhausts you. If you are seeking to make a change in the criminal justice world, we need more change in policy to actually reform the system.