While no honest lawyer can guarantee a particular outcome on your case, having an experienced advocate at your side increases your chances of getting a desirable outcome. Most of the time, the outcome depends heavily on the particular facts of the case. However, being in a position to use favorable facts to reach a better outcome often depends on having a skilled attorney with the knowledge and experience to make the most of your case. The purpose of this guide is to provide you with some of the information you need to hire the best attorney you can afford.
Handling the initial interview.
In order to hire a good criminal defense attorney, you will need to meet with the him or her. The lawyer must evaluate your case, and you should be trying to measure them up as well. During your initial interview, you will be expected to talk about yourself and your case and to provide any paperwork you might have. Both you, and the attorney will try to form an opinion as to whether you can work together on your case.
When meeting with the lawyer, you should be completely honest about the facts of your case. Honesty is the foundation of any successful attorney-client relationship, but that road runs in both directions. Remember that every lawyer has a duty to keep your communications confidential. By being honest with your attorney about the facts you think might hurt your case, you are likely to get more useful advice. It's also far easier for your attorney to prepare for and deal with problem areas when he or she expects them, rather than to be surprised in the courtroom.
Demand professional intergrity.
If you can't trust your lawyer, you're wasting your money hiring them. You need ability, not marketing hype. If you can't trust them to tell you the truth about your case or to work diligently to earn their fee, find a different attorney.
When shopping for an attorney, ask them to tell you about their record of discipline with their state and local bar associations, or whether a client has ever sued them. Also assess the attorney's demeanor. Is he or she more like a doctor, providing candid and thoughtful assessments of your situation, or does he or she come off like a used car salesman promising you a dismissal or anything else he or she thinks you want to hear? The professional who begins your relationship with objectivity and realism instead of sales pitches and empty promises is not only likely to be more trustworthy and reliable, but also more likely to have the skills you need.
What is "the warrior spirit?"
There are basically two kinds of criminal defense lawyer. The first is what is sometimes referred to as a "dump truck" or "plea specialist." The dump truck attorney often (but not always!) charges very low fees, and then, because they expect to do little or no work, will turn around and try to get you to plead guilty with a minimum of investigation, research or any other work designed to improve your chances of realizing a better outcome. The second kind of lawyer is a skilled advocate, armed with both the ability and willingness to fight for you. Prosecutors and judges know that the skilled advocate would rather file motions and go to trial than tell their client to accept an unfair deal offered by the prosecution. Not only will the lawyer with a warrior spirit fight for you to get justice, he or she is far more likely to get reasonable offers on those cases that must be resolved by settlement.
Find a lawyer with the warrior spirit.
A lawyer's willingness to fight for you can't be measured by their attitude alone. Winning trials is not about being a jerk to the DA-it's about persuading the judge or jury that your position on the facts and law is the right one. There are lots of lawyers with attitude, but most of the best attorneys I know are respectful and polite most of the time. Instead, their fighting spirit can be measured by their trial experience and by outlining a proactive defense-instead of reacting to everything the prosecutor does, they seize the initiative by filing motions and preparing every case as though it's headed for trial, even if they believe the case will ultimately settle. Try to see past whatever bluster the attorney is offering and ask them about their experience, or ask them what strategy they would take in preparing your case for trial.
Hire someone with the brains to handle your case properly.
Defending the accused is extremely demanding and requires an attorney to constantly study to keep up with an evolving body of law. The bottom line is that your criminal defense attorney should be as intelligent as he or she is experienced, honest and willing to fight.
Find out whether your attorney went to an ABA accredited law school, and whether they earned any academic awards or scholarships while they were there. Ask whether your attorney passed the state bar examination on his or her first attempt. Although it is possible to repeatedly take the bar examination until the applicant finally learns enough law to pass, wouldn't you rather have a lawyer with the brains and work ethic to get your case right from the beginning? You should also ask what other training the lawyer has received relevant to criminal defense, and how the lawyer keeps up with changes in the law. Does the lawyer belong to any professional associations dedicated to criminal defense?
Retain an attorney with solid experience in criminal defense.
When it comes to defending criminal cases, experience matters. You should be looking for an attorney dedicated to defending the accused, and not someone for whom criminal cases are just another source of income. Try to find out what kinds of cases the attorney has worked on, and what kinds of cases he or she has taken to trial. Look for experience with the kind of case you have. Also find out if the lawyer is familiar with the court where your case will be heard. A lawyer familiar with local practices in your area will have a better chance of successfully guiding your case through the system. He or she will know which prosecutors and judges are most reasonable when evaluating a case for settlement, and which judges are likely to give you a fair trial.
Finally, a few words about fees.
Litigation is expensive, and the education required of a good lawyer isn't cheap either. In general, you should expect to pay a private attorney a fee based upon a number of factors, including that attorney's experience, your attorney's academic record of achievement and other skills, the difficulty of the issues in your case, the seriousness of your case, and the amount of time a competent attorney would be expected to work on your case.
All of these things can add up to a significant investment in your defense. Attorneys offering rock-bottom prices out of line with most of his or her colleagues in the area may be misdiagnosing your case, or they may simply lack the experience, skill, or interest to vigorously defend you. None of those things are good signs.
If you can't afford the more realistic prevailing rate, you'll be better off if you either raise funds or ask the court to appoint the Public Defender.