The one question I am constantly being asked is how to hire a lawyer and who to hire. Almost invariably when asked the question it is someone asking for a friend, or the friend of a friend, or for a loved one in a jam (I never get asked when, in contemplation of marriage, people want to know about what legal documents might help in protecting their loved ones, maybe other lawyers do, I don’t.). If you live within about 50 (and in some directions 100 miles) of where I live or practice I can name you some phenomenal lawyers, some of whom are dirt cheap. I don’t do divorce law so I can only speculate what to look for a good matrimonial lawyer, however, when it comes to criminal defense, look out, I actually know a little something.
- Don’t screw yourself. Be selfish. This is about you. Get the best lawyer you can.
- Should I get out on bail or have my family save the money for a “real lawyer”? Making bail is often the most important thing you can do in a criminal case. I always tell clients “my goal is to get you out of jail and to keep you out of jail, and if I can’t, get you the least amount jail time possible — sometime that means going to trial, most times it means taking a deal.” If your deal is likely to be time served no matter who is your lawyer (and you’ll know) bail out, if not, talk it over with your public defender or any lawyer you’re thinking about hiring.
- Public Defenders: I’ve been a public defender and I’ve been a “real lawyer.” PD’s get a bad rap. PD’s know the local scene, they know the players, and for the most part are exceptionally skilled. Take a test drive. See what the PD can do for you. Not everyone loves Bourbon or Champagne, and not every PD will be for your taste. As a PD private lawyers often come to you for advice on what a local judge, prosecutor or jury is likely to do. A public defender is not a guaranteed best choice for you, however, it is a great, inexpensive place to start.
- So if a PD isn’t for you (maybe because you make too much money), or you aren’t sure, make a list of what is important to you in a lawyer. Do you need a lot immediate attention? Can you wait for a return phone call? Do you need someone with a specialty skill like income tax evasion or the like? Do you need someone who is pleasant or do you just need someone you believe will fight for you?
- Ask friends and loved ones who they know and how they know them. Avoid retaining friends and family members, but do turn to them for advice. It is your life, not your relative’s who just graduated law school or your friend who could never separate your friendship from what you need most, cold hard advice that will keep you out of prison.
- If this is your first offense inquire about whether there is a diversionary program for which you might be eligible, something that will seal your record or dismiss your charges if you do some community service and stay out trouble. Avoiding a criminal record is especially possible if your offense is a minor nonviolent offense (bad check, simple possession of narcotics, etc) and not a crime of violence (such as pistol whipping someone for not giving up their parking spot).
- Due a background check on your lawyer. Google them. Run their name through the local newspaper website. Find out what type stuff is out there on them. Many good lawyers have nothing out there on them. Many have misleading stuff out there on the net about them. As a general rule, however, lawyers who have been around awhile and who work in the field of criminal law will leave a paper trail.
- Does your lawyer belong to a lawyers’ organization like the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the state or county bar association, etc? Do they teach criminal law to other lawyers or at law school? Do they write about it or even appear as a guest on the subject on TV or in the newspaper? Do they have a certification by the state bar in the area of criminal law? I guess what I am asking is are they passionate about what they do? If you love what you do it shows, in the memberships you have, the certification you get, and extracurricular activities you have and I believe those people get better results. That is not to say everyone who has a certification as a “criminal trial lawyer” or who teaches a course to other lawyers is worth a damn, however, all things else being equal, it should be afforded great weight.
- Check out if the person has earned a Martindale-Hubbell rating, has been ranked as “super lawyer,” or has ever won a similar mark of distinction from their peers. Many of these ratings, like being called a “Super Lawyer,” are nothing more than paid advertising, but paid advertising by those who have a reputation in a certain the area. There is no official list of who is and isn’t the best attorney, don’t be fooled by advertising, but remember it often will give you a lead you might want to consider.
- Don’t be afraid to go to Court and just sit back and watch on a court day. Do you see someone who impresses you? Do you see someone who doesn’t? Confidence and appearances in Court don’t count for everything, but they count for a lot.
- Ask the local public defender’s office, and if you can’t talk to one of the staff attorneys talk to their investigators, about who in the private bar is worth a damn. Don’t be surprised to get some of the best advice from these folks. Remember, in many, if not most, jurisdictions PDs can’t handle criminal cases privately, and will often give you the bluntest advice out there on who sucks and who doesn’t. Some offices legally can’t give you advice on who to hire, but most will.
- Ask questions of the lawyer you are thinking about hiring. Often lawyers with a good name have more cases than they can handle. Ask politely who will work on your case if you hire them whether it will be that lawyer or one of their associates. Ask what their billing practices are (most criminal defense cases are flat fee for so many appearance with trials costing more — often $1,000 – $5,000 a day). Ask about whether expenses, like experts and investigators, are included in any upfront free. Ask about whether they accept credit cards, or willing to accept some sort of payment other than cash if you don’t have it.
- Ask for the lawyer to layout how they normally work, their hours, whether there is an email address you can contact them through, and whether there is a 24 hour number you can reach them at in case of emergency.
- Before you see a potential attorney gather up anything you might have relating to the case and take it to them and I mean anything. You likely haven’t been in enough trouble in the past to know what you need. What seems to be unimportant to you may mean the difference betweens skating free of the charges and losing years, if not decades, of your life.
- Most importantly, there are different strokes for different folks. Remember to take a PD for a test drive, and if it works you’ll save yourself thousands (and possibly years of your life). Ask questions. Remember there is no official list of the best lawyers.Google around to find out what else you might think about asking and look at your lawyers background.
- If all else fails call your local bar association for a referral of attorneys in your area. Some bar associations will have exceptional lists, some will have not so exceptional ones. Be forewarned and remember, this is about you, and no one else.
- One final thought from one of the best lawyers around: “stay away from lawyers that promise really good results. Good results can happen, but even the best lawyers do not always get the results they want. The reality is there are three types of cases: cases easily won (acquittal), cases easily lost (conviction), and cases in the middle. Every client wants to think that their case can be easily won. That is not the case. Good lawyers will have higher winning percentages, all things being equal, of the cases in the middle. Cases easily lost are cases in which the evidence is rather strong and you might want to really consider a plea bargain. Some lawyers are better at trial than at negotiations. If you are not familiar with the evidence that will be presented against you, you should be prepared for all possibilities. Sometimes it is better to hire a lawyer who can negotiate a good deal for you rather than a fire-breathing trial monster. If the evidence is overwhelming, you may want someone who can minimize potential jail or prison time. A trial monster may not be such a person. On the other hand, you may decide that you are going to trial no matter what. In such a case, get the trial monster.”
The How To Wiki suggests also
You should determine if the lawyer you want to hire has made many court appearances in the jurisdiction where your case is being heard. Some lawyers have good reputations in various courts and it can be advantageous to be represented by a lawyer who commands a great deal of respect from the court in which your case is being heard. By the same token, some lawyers who make frequent appearances in some courts do not garner much respect from the court.
The best criminal defense attorneys are very often public defenders. This is all they do, they do it every day, and they are frequently dedicated beyond the call of duty. Many are among the smartest, hardest-working attorneys you will ever meet. They do more trials and win more victories than many private attorneys ever will.
- The best private criminal defense attorneys are often former public defenders.
Attorneys have a number of ways of charging for their work. These include flat fees, hourly rates, and fees for specific parts of the case.
- Hourly rates are most consumer-friendly, but are the least predictable.
Flat fees are the most predictable, but can hurt the client in cases that are complicated. Many attorneys will offer some hybrid fee agreement that offers a refundable minimum retainer but then goes up as the case goes past that amount.
Contingency fee arrangements (fees based on the attorney achieving certain results) are unethical for criminal defense attorneys.
- Be sure you understand that the attorney bills you for everything, including phone calls.
If you like to communicate by phone, mail or e-mail, be sure the attorney is on the same page with you. Discuss what you expect when you communicate with the office and how often you expect to be billed.
Good lawyers can come from big firms or from small ones, and so can bad lawyers. An advantage of a big firm is that more than one attorney may be able to work on parts of your case, but you will pay more money for this. The advantage of a small firm is that you will often get the attorney you hired and he will have a lower overhead so you will pay less. It is rare except in the case of White Collar Crime cases to find good private criminal attorneys in large law firms.