I recently was asked by an Orange County family to help work on a case with an attorney they had already retained. They didn't want to release him because they had already paid his substantial retainer in full. Their brother, the defendant, was charged with first degree murder with gang allegations. These allegations, if one is convicted, mandates a life prison term. The reason for hiring me was because the defendant did not feel comfortable with what was going on with his case. The attorney had only visited him in jail a few times and never discussed his defense. This lawyer was referred to them by a close friend, a newly sworn in attorney who use to share an office with the man he recommended.
The case was ten months old. I naturally assumed, since the jury trial date was only two months away, the case was ready to proceed. When I received a copy of the attorney's file, I was shocked. The lack of preparation for trial and incompetence in court was blatant malpractice. When the D.A didn't comply with his minimal request for discover, he did nothing. He advised me that he believed the defendant was guilty so he was going to sit back and let the District Attorney try prove up the case. The facts were simple. The defendant, working in a grocery store, got into a less then three minute altercation with a group of guys buying beer. The prosecution based their whole case on a gang retaliation theory using absolutely minimal evidence. The police found the 23 year olds high school notebook in the garage of his parents home where he lived. It had a drawing on the cover that was similar to a gang moniker from another area. If the District Attorney couldn't make the gang connection at the preliminary examination, they had no case.
Homicide preliminary exams usually take weeks to finish. This one, took less then two hours. The prosecutions gang expert based his opinion of gang retaliation, using only the notebook to back that opinion. Defense counsel never objected. The case was set for trial. Due to his lack of objecting, the defendant lost his right to object to the life allegation in any pretrial motions. I had no choice but to turn down the case. It would certainly be a potential claim for ineffective assistance of counsel and malpractice. A famous criminal defense attorney once said, "You should never attempt to clean up someone else's garage". Unfortunately the brother was convicted. They never hired another attorney and probably couldn't. The families only hope is ineffective assistants of counsel for a new trial. So, what can you do?
Here are a few research steps to follow, in the path of finding a good lawyer.
No General Practitioners
- if the attorney practices more then two areas of the law, it is to many areas. The above attorney handled immigration law, bankruptcy, personal injury, criminal and tax law. A man in all fields is an expert in none.
- this gives you a chance to see if the attorney knows what he/she is talking about and that you both are a good match.
- make sure the attorney your discussing your case with, is the one who will be handling the case. Some criminal defense firms charge phenomenal fees based on the experience of the attorney who owns the firm. Later, you find out your case has been handed off to new and inexperienced associate attorney or a contracted attorney.
- like the Public Defender's office, you just might get a great attorney. However, if they are handling several cases, they are not so great in devoting the time your case needs.
State Bar Review
- is good for the attorneys good standing. Prior complaints are available to view.
- is a great place to review an attorney. Most, if not all experienced attorneys, have websites.
They are proud of their experience, education and victories. Some sites even give legal information about the offense you are charged with. Some even have a page of testimonials from former clients and judges. This is invaluable. Be cautious, however, of attorney testimonials. Sometimes attorneys exchange testimonials with each other.
In criminal cases you want an attorney now, if only to help relieve the stress of the unknown. The above defendant used only one source and didn't do any research. Do your research. When I asked the attorney who made the referral, how familiar he was with his recommendation, he remarked, " He was always busy, I figured he must be good, but frankly, I was pretty focused on getting my new practice off the ground."