How do I choose a good criminal defense lawyer? Do Professional associations/memberships matter? If I am looking for a criminal lawyer and the attorney I am looking for says "General Practice" does that mean he is not as qualified for my case?
Professional associations really only tell you how inclined the lawyer is to network. There are advantages to belong to various networks (listservs, seminars, etc.), assuming the lawyer takes advantage of them. General Practice usually means that the lawyer handles a variety of types of legal matters and, therefore, is less likely to have any real expertise in criminal law. If I were you, I would speak to several lawyers who identify themselves as "criminal defense" attorneys. In each of those interviews, I would find out how many criminal matters the lawyer has handled, how many trials and with what result, how many cases has she had dismissed as a result of her investigation, how many times has the lawyer successfully negotiated for a charge reduction or alternative sentencing. What in particular would the lawyer do in this case? What would the investigation look like? How realistic does the lawyer think your goals are? The more questions you ask the better you will be able to distinguish among the lawyers.
You need a lawyer.
A very solid approach is to talk to friends and trusted persons in your community who have experienced a similar problem you face to get ideas about lawyers. Ask them who their lawyers were and how they rated the lawyer.
Lawyer referral services are another source of information. Many quality lawyer referral services exist to help you sort through all the basics about the lawyer. Those with the highest ratings that are offered can be a good place to start your specific search.
The best way to decide is by talking to the lawyer. The insight into the lawyer's approach can help you decide if the lawyer is right for you. Whether the lawyer is willing to spend a few hours to be your advisor may show you the lawyer will be aggressive in your case later on. Finally, don't make up your mind about hiring a lawyer until you've met him or her.
Click the Lawyer Search tab on Avvo and look for an attorney in your area.
Finally, you might find my Legal Guide helpful "What Do I Tell My Lawyer"?
You might find my Legal Guide helpful "Ethics: Yes I Need a Lawyer!"
Good luck to you.
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Affiliations matter but experience matters more. Here in California, I do not know what a "general practitioner" attorney is. Look for someone who has practiced in the area you have been charged. Example being, don't go to a tax fraud attorney if you are charged with dope or assault.
Membership in professional associations can matter, to the extent it shows their professional interest and possibly as a way of keeping up to date as the law changes.
I would not suggest that you hire a "general practitioner," which is code for "I will work on almost any kind of matter at all." Criminal defense work is often complicated and requires both experience and a level of courtroom comfort that civil attorneys will seldom, if ever, achieve. Familiarity with the judge and prosecutors who may handle your case can also be of benefit.
Although I have a guide that might be of help in identifying the kind of attorney you probably want, in a nutshell, you really need to invest some time talking to criminal defense attorneys. It's reasonable for you to ask questions in the interview, both about your case, and about the attorney's experience and willingness to fight your case. Specifically, look for trial experience and experience in areas relevant to your case.
Find an attorney who focuses on a particular area of defense. If you are being charged with assault find an attorney who focuses on assault. If it is a DUI, find a DUI attorney. You don't take your car to a guy who does carpentry, plumbing, electrical and mechanical work do you? No, you take it to a mechanic. Someone who works on cars every day. It should be no different with lawyers or attorneys.
Once you find someone who has the experience and area of focus you want, then hire the attorney who you feel the most comfortable with and can afford.
If you are going to get heart surgery would you go to a heart surgeon or a general practice Doctor? Experience is very important. In my opinion, it is in your best interest to find an attorney who does most of their practice in the area of law you are dealing with; who has built a good working relationship with the opposing counsel (I.E., in criminal law that would be the prosecutors), and who is familiar and works in the court(s) your case will be out of. Finally, and I believe most important, do you feel comfortable talking to this attorney? You have to feel like you can communicate with him or her. Often this can be as simple as asking yourself if when you ask your potential attorney a question, is it being answered to your complete understanding?
One word, EXPERIENCE. How did the attorney gain experience in criminal law? Have they ever worked on the other side, as a prosecutor, and for how long? How long have they practiced criminal defense? Have they handled major and high-profile cases, with success? To what degree are they familiar with the court where the case is located? Who do prosecutors, judges and other lawyers hire - who have they elected to head the local bar associations and who do they ask to speak to those groups on criminal law issues? Did they get their formal education at top schools, and rank high in their class? Have they ever been disciplined by the state bar? What is their AVVO ranking?
Experience, experience, experience. Criminal defense lawyers need to know the law. They also need to know the nuts and bolts of court proceedings. You can study law all day long, spend time with professional organizations and spend lots of time on perfecting your internet image. But, at the end of the day, the greatest protection you have comes from the U.S. and State Constitutions. You are presumed innocent, and in every criminal case the government must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of your peers. Don't take that lightly. Attorneys can claim to be aggressive and experienced with wonderful web sites, but that doesn't mean that the have the ultimate weapon: Great trial skills.
So, ask questions like: 1. How many cases have you tried? 2. How complex were those cases? (Lawyers without much experience like to emphasize their traffic ticket work, which isn't much help if you are charged with a serious crime.) 3. What sort of outcomes did you obtain for your clients? 4. How many times have you been asked to teach lawyers or lecture on legal issues? 5. Where did you go to law school? (Let's face it, a great legal education is the foundation of great legal skills.)
The next issue is cost. The old saying is true: You get what you pay for. Realize that the lawyer's fee pays for his office expenses, all overhead and staff salaries. But don't confuse a large fee with a large amount of relevant experience. I have seen young attorneys with absolutely NO felony experience charge exorbitant fees simply to make prospective clients think they are the best. I have even heard inexperienced attorneys brag that they charge high fees because people think that 'you get what you pay for' translates into 'if you pay a lot they must be the best.' Not true. Ask the above questions, and you will get the straight scoop.
People sometimes describe good criminal trial lawyers as "hired guns." If that is true, then a trial is the show down at the OK Corral. Would you want a lawyer sitting next to you in trial who had never been in a gun fight before?
Experience, education and reasonable fees are not all. You also need to have a close working relationship with the lawyer. Think about going to the doctor. If you are afraid to speak to the doctor he or she is going to miss possible health problems. You need to have open lines of communication with the attorney. So, you need to be comfortable with the attorney you select. Above all, criminal attorneys need to treat clients with respect. Clients charged with felonies and misdemeanors feel bad already. They don't need the lawyer to make it worse. The job of the criminal defense attorney is to help take the stress off of your shoulders and shoulder it themselves. It is stressful. Again, the more times the lawyer has been in the trenches the more comfortable they will be taking on the stress you are feeling and helping you relax a bit.
Finally, make sure that the lawyer you hire is the lawyer you get. There is a trend these days for the experienced lawyers to act as the 'hook' to get clients in the door, then the clients are promptly dumped on a less experienced lawyer to appear with them in court. This can look attractive to clients, since the younger attorneys are cheaper. However, the idea that ANY court hearing is routine is false. Any time you walk into a court room a "fire fight" might break out. Do you want an experienced combat veteran-hired gun at your side, or someone who has never been anywhere but a pretend firing range (ie moot court or traffic court)? I tell young attorneys that every time they walk into the court room something can happen that might wind up in the Supreme Court. And it could.
Finally, on a lighter note, you might ask the criminal defense lawyer if he or she has any stories about their big cases. Lawyers are natural story tellers. If they have no stories they either have no experiences or they can't tell stories.
Finding a good criminal defense attorney is really a hit-or-miss thing. Some attorneys will do a good job, others will do just an "OK" job, and a few will do an absolutely outstanding job. However, if your case is "routine" -- just about any attorney who practices primarily in the area of criminal law will likely do a good job on the case. I suggest you ask the court personnel (go into the judge's courtroom one day -- and ask during a recess) for a recommendation, or ask the public defender in that courtroom for a couple of names they think are best for your "type" case. You'll find recommendations will often vary on the type of case, as some attorneys specialize within their fields. From a technical standpoint, an attorney who was a public defender, or prosecutor -- likely knows the judges, and his or her way around the courthouse -- and will be more experienced than an attorney who didn't have this background. A "board certified" attorney shows you that the particular attorney has handled a number of major cases to trial -- and that's an indication of experience. Likewise, checking out the attorney's website will give you some insight if the website is really personalized. However, in the end -- it really depends how dedicated the attorney is to the client -- and what the attorney's personal reputation is within the legal community. So if you know a judge or other lawyer -- that's an excellent way to get a recommendation.
My one warning to people is that a few lawyers are going to say anything to get your business. I've seen instances where an attorney will tell a client not to worry about the case, tell them what they want to hear -- and the day they go to court to dispose of the case with the client thinking there's nothing to worry about -- the attorney "pops" the client with a total surprise that they "have to take" a particular bad plea -- or go to jail forever, etc.
Sometimes the advice is true, and that's really how it happens. A lot of times the attorney knew from the outset it would come to this. In some instances, the only reason there is a "bad plea" offer is because the attorney didn't do the workup necessary to get a better deal. The problem is -- you'll likely never really know. Therefore, if you're getting a bad feeling about how you're being represented -- it's sometimes worth paying a consult fee to another attorney for a second opinion. (a fee should be charged for this) Likewise, the most important thing in looking for an attorney -- besides reputation -- is whether the attorney is being honest with you from the outset. If it's a bad case -- you should know about it from the start.
Last but not least -- what an attorney charges does not tell you how good they are. On the other hand -- unless the attorney charges you enough to adequately cover his or her time in the case -- you will NOT get the representation you need! For instance -- in an aggravated assault case you're usually looking at a possible mandatory three year prison sentence. Unless you plan to plea to the three years -- you're attorney is going to have to put in at least fifty hours on the case -- maybe as much as 120 hours if it's very complex. Figure a low hourly of $150.00 (normal hourly fees are $200 - $350 per hour) -- and you begin to see that a fee of $2,500.00 isn't going to do it for you. If the attorney only plans to put in ten hours of work -- what happens to the other forty hours you need???? You probably figured this out -- you're not going to get it -- and you'll be screwed because you tried to do it cheap. Still, if all it was was a plea to a misdemeanor marijuana charge -- $2,500.00 is likely not an unfair fee to the attorney -- so long as it doesn't involve any complications like a motion to suppress or taking depositions. In other words -- the more the attorney needs to do, the more the attorney should be charging.
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