It’s one thing to hire a lawyer to help you fight a traffic ticket or to write a will. It’s quite another if you have been charged with criminal conduct or had a lawsuit filed against you and are facing significant prison time. Choosing the right attorney can have a life-changing impact for you.
While civil cases are typically filed by individuals or companies, criminal cases are brought forward by the local, state, or federal government. These types of cases are more complex and are associated with more extensive court proceedings and ultimately, more severe consequences.
What would a criminal lawyer do for you? He or she would help you identify all the issues involved with your case, starting with pretrial issues. Your attorney may be able to make a motion early on to improve your situation or even get the charges dismissed. If the case goes to trial, your attorney would represent you in court to make sure you received a fair trial and received the best possible outcome.
Attorneys for civil cases tend to work for large corporate law firms with branches in many different locations, possibly representing worldwide clients. Private criminal defense lawyers, on the other hand, typically practice on their own and in specific geographic locations. Some criminal lawyers, however, develop national profiles and take on only the most notorious clients or the most sensational crimes.
Where to look
There are several ways to look for a good criminal attorney. If you have used an attorney in the past for some other reason (that traffic ticket or will), you can ask that person for a possible referral. Or you can ask a friend or relative if they know of a lawyer who specializes in criminal law.
Lawyers are most often members of professional organizations including those specializing in criminal law. Many lawyers and their firms have websites and you can do online searches. There is a danger here, though, that you are on your own and you might choose a lawyer that is not properly qualified. And that lawyer that your uncle recommends may or may not be the right one for you, either.
A better approach is to find an attorney referral service who will consult with you to identify your specific area of law and particular legal need. Such a service has done the searching for you and can recommend qualified attorneys certified in your area of law.
The area of legal specialty is important. Location can be important, too. There is an advantage to hiring a local attorney who might be familiar with the tendencies of local prosecutors and may have worked with local law enforcement officials.
Actions like plea bargaining or other negotiating tactics can be more effective with some prosecutors over others, and a local attorney would know that and can use it to your advantage where possible.
Consultation, caution, and cost
Using an attorney referral service to find the right lawyer, you will avoid falling prey to attorneys who say one thing but might do another. No attorney should promise you an outcome. And no attorney should ask for a large amount of money up front to deal with issues unrelated to a trial. The attorney should outline the likely outcomes of a trial with you so you fully understand the nature of any risks involved.
The cost of hiring an attorney is usually based on the complexity of your case. There can be hourly fees, flat fees, or a retainer agreement. Hourly charges may appear to be the most affordable but are also the most unpredictable. Flat fees can become high if the case becomes complicated. A retainer is a recurring fee that you and the attorney agree to as the case moves along. There can be other fees for consultation, documentation, etc. So, you should ask.
Once you have one or more attorneys identified to possibly represent you, a consultation should be arranged where you can meet them face to face and ask them questions to find out how good a fit there may be with you and your particular legal problem.
A consultation is not a binding agreement and many lawyers offer an initial free consultation. So, meeting with more than one is easily accomplished. It might take a little time but having the right one is certainly worth it in the long run.
You should prepare a list of questions based on what you are looking for. In addition to the fee structure, you should ask about similar cases the attorney has worked on. Are they in your area of need? What were the results? What strategies were used and what strategy would the attorney use in your case? Would there be any negotiations planned or plea bargaining recommended? Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about how your case would be handled.
You also want to know about schedules. How busy is the attorney? What are other cases being tried? Does the attorney have the bandwidth to help you now? Be careful if the attorney says “someone” on his or her staff will be working with you. Find out who that person is and any other staff members who will be involved. How good are they? You don’t want to be “handed off” to less qualified staff members. But if they have proven themselves in other cases, and you are comfortable with them, you can accept them.
Personality and style
Being certified and experienced in your area of law and having a workable fee arrangement are important. But would you be comfortable working with this attorney? Do you like his or her personal style? Are you confident that you can share sensitive information and it will remain confidential, maintaining the lawyer-client privilege?
A good criminal attorney should be “street smart.” There should be an ability to think on their feet and know the law and legal system well enough to be aggressive with motions on your behalf.
Are you confident that this attorney and staff can handle a large volume of data and pay attention to details? Do you think they can be calm under pressure? If you are going to be nervous, you want your legal team to be supportive and reassuring and take the anxiety off your shoulders.
The bottom line is, find an attorney with the right professional qualifications, the right attitude and motivation, the right style, a track record of success, and a personal interest in your problem and help you solve it.