Choosing a Criminal Defense Lawyer.

Finding the right attorney to defend you in criminal matter is crucial.  But how do you find a good, competent criminal defense attorney?  Unlike plumbers or even physicians, it can be awkward or embarrassing to ask a friend or family member to recommend a criminal defense lawyer.  After all, who wants it known they have been charged with a crime even if their innocent?  So here are a few questions you should ask a prospective attorney:

  1. How long has the attorney been practicing criminal defense?  You deserve representation by an attorney with extensive experience handling the kind of case you or your loved one is charged with. Everyone has to start somewhere, but do you want to roll the dice on something as important as criminal conviction?  Insist on an attorney with at least 15 years experience in criminal defense that includes numerous trials and positive outcomes.
  2. How many trials has the attorney done?  Very few cases actually go to trial.  Most cases resolve in a reduction (plea bargain), dismissal or other outcome.  But some cases simply need to be tried. And it is your RIGHT to go to trial, even if your attorney advises against it; sometimes its a defendant’s only leverage.   And an attorney that doesn’t take cases to trial can’t back up his negotiations with a legitimate threat of going to the mat for the client.  When the prosecutor knows defense counsel never takes cases to trial, that prosecutor has a built in advantage in negotiations.
  3. Is criminal defense the lawyers’ main area of practice? Many lawyers dabble in different areas of the law, but the days of the “general practitioner” are over.  Any area of law, particularly criminal defense, requires experience in that area.  Don’t trust your criminal case to the guy who did your will or the woman who handled your brother-in-law’s divorce They might be wonderful attorneys, but they are not ‘criminal defense attorneys’. Serious charges require a serious attorney with significant experience.  Entrust your case to a lawyer who has represented hundreds of clients facing serious felony or misdemeanor charges.
  4. What is the lawyer’s reputation among his or her peers?  While other criminal defense attorneys might be reluctant to give an honest opinion of the competition, a good criminal defense attorney will have a good reputation among non-criminal lawyers, judges and public defenders.  Make inquiries.
  5. If I qualify, why shouldn’t I just have the public defender represent me?  Most, although by no means all, of the good criminal dense attorneys I know started out as public defenders, myself included.  It’s where we learn our craft.  It’s a wonderful training ground and many dedicated and highly effective attorneys choose to remain public defenders throughout their careers. Some of the best attorneys I know are public defenders.  They are a crucial part of the criminal justice system.  That said, most are overworked and underpaid.  They have too many cases and not enough time to focus on each client individually.  Most of those handling misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors, including DUIs, simply lack the experience to handle what can be deceivingly complex charge involving thorny and complicated scientific and forensic evidence.  Finally, the public defender CANNOT represent you at the Department of Licensing hearing where you will be at risk of having your driving privilege suspended regardless of what happens in the criminal case.  Experienced private counsel should be willing to represent you at the Department of Licensing hearing at no additional charge.
  6. What will be the plan for handling your case?  While it is important to trust your attorney’s judgment (if you don’t you should think hard about getting a new one), you need not do so blindly.  As with a physician or financial adviser, you should always feel comfortable asking questions.  Will the attorney be filing motions?  Is this a case that is likely to go to trial?  If so, does your attorney feel comfortable taking your case before a jury?  What are the potential defenses? Will the attorney employ investigators or experts? If so, what are the costs?  Its your life. You have a right to get answers.
  7. What are the range of outcomes you can expect? While we’d all like to be told that our case will be dismissed or just ‘go away’, in most instances, such an outcome is unlikely. Even the best of cases often involve a negotiated reduction to a less severe or significant charge or infraction. And an attorney who “guarantees” a particular outcome is not only violating the Rules of Professional Responsibility, they are also being dishonest. Run; no attorney can or should guarantee a particular outcome. But your attorney should be able to give you an idea of what to expect.  A plea bargain?  Deferred action?  Trial? You should know your options, best and worst case scenarios and the direct and collateral consequences of all of those possibilities.
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