Must I hire an attorney or can I get court appointed counsel?
Everyone charged with a crime which can result in incarceration has the right to the help and representation of a lawyer. However, there is no right to a "free" lawyer. The United States Constitution guarantees that a lawyer will be with you in court, if you want one, and this means if you cannot afford to hire an attorney the court will appoint one to represent you. Remember if you are convicted the court will probably order that you repay the government for the cost of hiring an attorney for you.
If you cannot afford to hire an attorney the court will likely have you fill out a financial affidavit listing your income, bills and assets. Usually you will have to swear the contents are correct. If you lie under oath you can be prosecuted. The court will then decide whether you qualify for an appointed attorney. If so, he will appoint an attorney to represent you. You still have the right to hire an attorney later on if you wish.
How does an appointed attorney get paid?
There are generally three different types of appointed attorneys; public defenders, contract attorneys and appointed counsel.
A public defender is a full time employee of the government, either federal, state, county or municipal. He has set working hours and, usually, does nothing except defend people charged with crimes. He receives the same salary no matter how many cases he handles.
Contract counsel is an attorney in private practice who has a contract with the government to defend a certain number of people for a set price. Usually it is a per case price.
Appointed counsel is an attorney in private practice who has agreed to take individual cases and be paid for that case by the government. Sometimes this is on an hourly basis, sometimes on a per case basis.
What factors should I consider in deciding whether to hire an attorney?
First, do you qualify for appointed counsel? If you do not then you must hire an attorney.
Second, do you feel that the appointed attorney will spend the time necessary to fully explain your options and listen to your concerns.
Third, do you think that the appointed attorney has the necessary experience and skills to represent you and get you the best possible outcome?
It is only fair to note that there are many very good attorneys who work for public defender's offices or take court appointments. The fact that an attorney has been appointed does not mean that he is not a good attorney. But you must decide whether this particular appointed attorney has the time, experience and skills to help you. These are are the same questions you should ask about private counsel.
What qualities does an attorney need to properly defend me?
An attorney must know the area of practice you need handled. If the matter involves international business questions the best DUI lawyer in the world is of little help. You need somebody who is experienced in the area. This does not mean that the lawyer needs to have handled cases exactly like yours. In truth no two cases are exactly alike and experience in taking cocaine cases to trial applies pretty well to heroine cases.
An attorney must be able and willing to communicate with you. He must be able to explain the system and your choices in ways that make sense to you. He must be willing to spend the time to ensure that you know your options, know which one you wish to try for and what the consequences are of that choice. Anything less is unacceptable.
Is the most expensive attorney always the best attorney?
No, not necessarily. There are attorneys who set their rates to be as high as possible in an attempt to seem like the best. Beware of these people. On the other hand you do not want to hire an attorney who does not charge enough to do the job properly. If an attorney is undercharging for his time you can be sure he is making up for it elsewhere, often by volume. It is dangerous for the client if an attorney is stretching himself too thin. That is when mistakes are made. A good attorney, one you can trust to handle your matter with the care it deserves, will take the time and put in the effort to do the job right. Unfortunately this can run into significant expense.