Written by Avvo Staff

Do I need a criminal defense lawyer?

Your liberty is potentially at stake when facing criminal charges, but a criminal defense lawyer can help you protect your rights. If you're charged with a criminal offense, you have several options for representation.

With any charge, you may represent yourself. However, most criminal charges trigger your constitutional right to an attorney, even if you can't afford one. In this guide, learn about your legal options as a defendant in a criminal case.


You will always have the right to represent yourself unless the court deems you incompetent to waive the right of counsel. Representing yourself in court makes youa pro se defendant.

Pro se is a Latin phrase meaning "for yourself." Although you have this option, the court, in its discretion, can always appoint counsel on an advisory basis.

A judge can appoint a criminal defense attorney, known as standby counsel, to help you as needed. The court can make this appointment whether you want it or not. As a pro se defendant, judges will hold you to the same standard of professional responsibility as a licensed attorney. You'll be expected to follow all the rules of criminal procedure and the rules of evidence, whether you're familiar with them or not.

For this reason, self-representation can be inherently risky. In court, you'll be facing licensed, experienced attorneys who know the rules of criminal procedure and relevant case law.

Public defenders

Defendant that cannot afford to hirea private criminal defense lawyer have a right to a court-appointed attorney if they face imprisonment of more than 6 months.

This right applies to all critical stages of a criminal proceeding. Those stages include the following:

  • Post-arrest interrogation
  • Lineups
  • Preliminary hearings
  • Arraignments
  • Plea negotiations
  • Sentencing proceedings

Private criminal defense lawyers

With any criminal charge, you'll have the option to hire a private criminal defense lawyer. If you meet certain income requirements, you may be constitutionally entitled to a public defender. However, public defenders typically face significantcaseloads. These attorneys may not have much time to devote to your cause.

On average, public defenders face 1,600 cases per year. National standards recommend no more than 150 cases per attorney per year.

These highcaseloadsmay force some public defenders to take shortcuts, often forcing guilty pleas where situations do not call for them. For this reason, if you're facing high-stakes criminal charges, you will likely benefit from hiring a private criminal defense attorney.

When to hire a criminal defense lawyer

Hiring a lawyer is almost always a good idea, but charge severitymay influence your decision. For example, a misdemeanor is unlikely to have serious long-term consequences. However, felony charges can permanently change your life.

For example, if you're convicted of felony charges, you may have to deal with the following repercussions:

  • Losing eligibility for public housing and student loans
  • Disqualification from many private and public jobs
  • Inability to own or carrya firearm
  • Loss of your driver's license
  • Deportation if you are not a citizen

Felony cases carry significant consequences, with the potential to affect every aspect of your life. A professional criminal defense attorney will explain the consequences of the charges to you and present the best possible defense.

What a criminal defense lawyer can do for you

A criminal defense attorney can help you see your case through to closure, whether that means a plea bargain or a full trial. When you first consult with an attorney, that attorney can help you understand the following areas:

  • The nature of the criminal charges filed against you.
  • Plausible defenses against the charge, such as whether law enforcement officials had probable cause for arrest.
  • The plea deals the state is likely to offer.
  • What you can expect shoulda trial commence.
  • The ramifications of a conviction.

What to look for in a defense lawyer

Defense attorneys can specialize in a particular area of the law, such as driving under the influence charges, white-collar crimes, and drug charges.

You'll want to research the defense attorneys in your area to decide which one is most qualified to represent you. Make sure you look at potential attorneys' expertise, years of practice, and the outcomes of past cases. A good criminal defense attorney may be able to help you in the following ways:

  • Reduce the charges against you. For example, from a felony to a misdemeanor.

  • Minimize severity ofthe punishment for the crime. Such as probation in place of jail or prison time.

  • Devise a defense strategy that will win at trial. For example, lack of probable cause or invalid scientific evidence.

Questions to ask a criminal defense attorney

When dealing with a criminal defense attorney, you'll want to ask the following questions to ensure a good defense:

  • Have you received and reviewed all items of discovery? Make sure your lawyer has received police reports, witness statements, any audio or video recordings, pictures, and any other materials involved in the discovery process. A good lawyer will also review these items with you.

  • What is our defense strategy? What defenses are available, if any? Is a plea bargain in my best interest or can you take the case to trial? What are the risks of going to trial?

  • How much will each possible outcome cost? Trial may be warranted in some criminal cases, but trials themselves can be costly. Your lawyer should be able to estimate for you the cost of taking your case to trial.

  • What sentencing alternatives do I have? You may be eligible for deferred judgments and other sentencing alternatives. You potentially won't have the charge on your record, or youmay be able to do house arrest or probation instead of jail time. Ask your attorney about the sentencing possibilities.

Facing criminal charges is daunting, but a criminal defense lawyer can help you through the process. Knowing your rights and the possibilities can help you choose the best legal representation.

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