How to Choose a Criminal Lawyer

It never fails. I cannot count the number of times someone has contacted my law office seeking a consultation after firing their lawyer. After discussing the facts, the current status of litigation, and giving the prospective client my opinion on his or her case, the song remains the same: "I wish I had known that from day one."

How to Choose a Criminal Lawyer

This article is meant as a helpful guide for any one who is potentially or currently facing criminal charges.

Picking a criminal lawyer may be one of the most important decisions of your life. Think about it. The person you decide to hire as your attorney will be tasked with protecting your freedom from an overwhelming and unflinching adversary: the government.

Whether you face a city municipal case, a state felony or misdemeanor, or a federal indictment, the final battle will ultimately come down to you versus the powers that be. In order to have any chance at all, you have to load your deck.

You have to surround yourself with people who will support you and fight for you. These people will, in essence, be your teammates . . . your brothers and sisters in arms. All of you will need a skilled, intelligent, and experienced tactician to make the most of whatever resources you have at your disposal. You will need a criminal defense lawyer.

Do I Need to Hire an Attorney?

If you find yourself asking this question, then the answer is almost always a resounding, "Yes!"

Any time that your internal judgement alarm starts to sound, you should probably listen to it. You know your skills and capabilities. As a general rule of thumb, if a problem seems like it might be even a bit over your head from the get-go, chances are you will be struggling for air the further along the situation develops.

This is true when dealing with legal issues as well. I tell every person who contacts my office that he or she should ALWAYS have a practicing lawyer present at their side any time he or she has to appear in court.

How Do I Find the Right Criminal Lawyer for Me?

So, how do you choose the RIGHT criminal lawyer? Well, you should start just as you would in making any other major life decision: do your research.

I've heard many compare "shopping" for a lawyer to shopping for an automobile; that's a pretty fair comparison for a few reasons. In both situations, you start out with a basic need and an idea of the basic criteria that will address the need.

When you go to buy an automobile, you begin with the premise that the automobile is going to fit into 3 or 4 different categories: sports car, sedan, a family vehicle, or maybe a work truck. It helps to know before you begin searching exactly what you need the vehicle for, and that should help you choose which category you will focus your attention on.

The same should be true when looking for a lawyer. Start with one simple question: "What do I need a lawyer for?" Do you need to sue someone over a disagreement? Do you need to get a divorce? Are you charged with a crime? The type of lawyer you are looking for will depend on the problem that you want to address. As such, realize that different areas of the law require different skill sets and knowledge of various rules, regulations, and statutes.

Consequently, you will want to pick someone who focuses solely on the issue that you need help with. As a practical matter, general practitioners sometimes spread themselves too thin trying to handle every type of legal issue that comes into their respective offices. Hire someone who deals with issues like yours all day, everyday.

After you have narrowed your search, start to collect some data. Go online and see what you can find about your potential picks. In today's day and age, attorneys should be very transparent in what they offer and what they have accomplished. Does the attorney have reviews on various websites? Does the attorney have a website that explains his or her practice areas in detail? Does the website demonstrate a knowledge of the law? Are you able to view some of the cases that he or she has dealt with and see his or her results? These are all easy enough for an attorney to display, so anyone who does not should raise an eyebrow.

Now, there are some older attorneys who still refuse to get a website and embrace technology. That does not mean that the attorney does not have the skill and ability to handle your legal issues. However, the vast majority of lawyers in today's market use their websites to explain more about themselves, their abilities, and their results. If you cannot find information online regarding a specific lawyer, you may want to think twice before hiring him or her.

Online and word-of-mouth research should help you funnel your list of prospective lawyers down to around three or so choices. Once you have your list, start calling them. If you are unable to speak with the attorney or one of his or her associates simply by calling, that may be a bad sign. It is good to consider attorneys who are busy, as that can be an indication that the lawyer is either in high demand or at least working regularly. However, if you are constantly left dealing with administrative staff, you might want to look elsewhere.

It should not be difficult to speak with someone who has a law license sooner rather than later. Discuss your case with the criminal lawyer and explain yourself and situation. Only after having a conversation with the attorney -- whether it is ten minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour -- will you know if the criminal lawyer is right for you.

Are All Criminal Defense Lawyers the Same?

The short answer is no. Let's go back to the "car shopping" analogy. Are all motor vehicles the same? Of course not.

Once you have settled on the type of attorney you need, start to narrow your focus. When dealing with criminal lawyers, you need to know whether your potential prospects have handled cases like yours and whether they have an understanding of the applicable law. Even within a smaller section of attorneys, such as "criminal defense lawyers," there can be a wide range of focuses.

Does the attorney handle various areas of criminal law? Does the attorney only focus on one small section of criminal defense such as DUI defense? Does the lawyer have experience in various areas such as white collar crime, violent crime, drug crimes, and sex crimes? These are all different in detail, and it is important to know if the attorney handles different types of criminal defense on a regular basis.

Once you get the attorney on the phone, try to have a conversation with him or her. Many attorneys will cut right to the chase and start discussing dollars and cents as soon as they get on the line. Any criminal defense lawyer worth considering though will want to ask you specific questions about your individual situation. Its fairly easy to gauge what the defense lawyer is focused on within the first ten minutes of the conversation.

Furthermore, different criminal defense lawyers have different personalities and styles. Some are laid back and low-key. Others are flashy, loud, and flamboyant. Some attorneys are "pitfalls" that get results by going strait for the throat. Others are more calm and methodical in their approach. Some criminal defense lawyers consider themselves more a "jack-of-all-trades" in the way they handle their cases.

There is no right or wrong disposition as long as it works for that particular attorney. Still, you have to consider these different personality types, as you will be dealing with your criminal defense attorney on a regular basis for months and possibly years.

Do I Need a Trial Lawyer?

I get this question quite often. I usually answer with a question myself: "Do you need a seat-belt in your car?"

No reasonable person ever plans on getting in a car wreck. No reasonable person every wants to get in a car wreck. Regardless, ever vehicle has to have a seat-belt, and no reasonable person is going to buy a car without one. Why? Because you have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

In the same vein, no criminal defendant ever plans on going to trial or sets out with the intention of taking his or her criminal case to trial. The same can be said for most defense attorneys. No one wants to have to go to trial. There are so many unknowns that can occur in a split second during a jury trial; as such, it is much more comforting to have a solid idea of what the end result will be rather than chance your life and reputation on six or twelve strangers.

As noted above though, all criminal defense lawyers are not the same. Aside from their personalities and perspectives on how to practice, different defense lawyers have different skill sets. Some attorneys pride themselves on their trial skills and extensive trial record. Some attorneys are more proud of their motion work and litigation skills. Still, others have various experience in both trial and motion work.

The bottom line is that, regardless of the crime or your personal record (or lack thereof), you should hire a criminal defense attorney that has trial experience. Just like the seat-belt analogy, it is impossible to predict when a case will turn down the wrong road and start on a collision course. As such, it is extremely important that you hire a defense lawyer at the beginning who has taken a case like yours to trial -- regardless of whether the trial resulted in acquittal or conviction -- so you don't have to hire a new lawyer if and when your case gets to that point.

Does Cost of Attorney Fees Matter?

From a practical standpoint, of course costs matter. Anyone who will tell you differently does not understand, or is not willing to accept, the old adage that "money doesn't grow on trees."

Still, it is important to put price into perspective. As such, let's go back to the car-buying analogy. Would you be willing to put yourself or a loved on in a junker you bought off the lot for a throw-away price? Of course not. Just like so many other aspects of life, most commonly when you hire an attorney, you get what you pay for. If you expect your attorney to do the best job, you should expect to pay fees as such.

Attorneys that do not charge respectable prices are most likely less inclined to provide respectable service. They may simply be looking for some easy money to just "bleed you and plead you."

If you were undergoing a potentially life-altering surgery, would you try to find the least-expensive surgeon. I doubt it. You would be more worried about the surgeon's success rate and reputation in the medical community. This is true for criminal defense lawyers as well.

On the topic of costs, also remember to get the retainer fee in writing. In fact, you should not hire an attorney that is not willing to sign a contract with you. Any criminal defense lawyer worth paying thousands of dollars to should have a standard contract that he or she is happy to sign with you. The contract should explain the fee, whether it is a flat, fixed-rate fee (and what that amount is) or whether it is an hourly rate (and what that rate is). Contracts protect both the defense lawyer and the client, so you should be wary of any attorney unwilling to sign a contract with you.

Does the Defense Attorney's Age Matter?

It depends. There is an old story about two hound dogs out sniffing a scent. Both dogs get lost, and subsequently try to make their way back home. The older dog is slow and steady; he has made the trek back home many times, and nothing is going to get him to trot any faster than absolutely necessary. He knows where he is going, and he'll get there on his own time.

He makes his way back home, but realizes that the young dog got back sooner. The young dog didn't take the tried and true path, but he was so full of energy and so anxious to get where he was going that it didn't matter.

The moral of the story? Sometimes age can give off a false sense of security. Sometimes age can make a criminal defense attorney less effective if he or she is complacent with the way things have always been. On the flip side, sometimes a younger attorney may have more energy and more hunger to get the best possible result.

Remember also that people enter the legal profession from all walks of life. Some people go straight to law school from college and have ten years under their belt before they are out of their mid-thirties. Some people don't even start law school until they are in their forties. Don't let age be the deciding factor. Take it into consideration, but it should just be one of the many issues you contemplate.

At the end of the day, however, there is no substitute for experience. Regardless of the defense attorney's age, what has he or she accomplished? In spite of how many years they have been practicing, how many of those years have been devoted specifically to criminal defense? Age is just a number, so don't let it deceive you for better or worse.

The best bet is to find a good mix of youthful vigor and experience.

Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Hopefully you have used all of the advice above to narrow your list of potential criminal defense attorneys down to just a few prospects. Once you contact them, they should ask you multiple questions during the initial consultation.

That's right: the lawyer should start off asking YOU questions about your case and the facts surrounding the situation. Beware of any attorney who jumps strait to the pitch or automatically quotes you a retainer fee with little or no information. Why? Because he or she needs to have a good understanding of your situation in order to give you the answers you need.

Some types of criminal cases need more discussion about the facts than others. DUI and drug crime cases typically follow a pretty standard fact pattern with some potential places for variation. Other crimes, such as sex crimes, may have a much longer factually history or background that needs to be explained to the attorney in order for him or her to adequately advise you about your case and the potential retainer for representation.

After the attorney has asked you questions, you should ask the defense lawyer some questions yourself. Here are some to consider:

  • Has the attorney ever handled a case like yours? What was the outcome?
  • Does the lawyer have enough space on his or her docket to give you the attention you deserve?
  • Does the attorney have a standardized plan for putting you in the best position to possibly negotiate a deal?
  • Has the lawyer ever taken a case like yours to trial?
  • Has the attorney ever taken any criminal case to trial?
  • When was the last time the criminal defense lawyer took a case to verdict at a criminal jury trial?

These are just some of the most important issues to discuss with the criminal defense lawyer before you hand him or her thousands of dollars and the keys to your future. If the criminal defense attorney cannot answer these basic questions, you should look elsewhere. If the defense attorney is hesitant to answer these simple questions, you should be hesitant to hire him or her.

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