Deciding who may be a good criminal defense attorney for your situation can be tough since you are unsure of what, exactly, they're supposed to do. Here's the inside line of what, and what not, to look for.
Consult With More than One Attorney
Comparison shopping is an effective way to determine the differences between products. Hiring an attorney is like acquiring a product in that some subtle differences in how they operate may or may not match with your expectations. The only way to know if you have a good match is to check around. Make some phone calls or, better yet, visit a few offices and certainly read their websites. Look for information on their philosophy of defense.
Bring whatever documents you have about the arrest and charges with you - a good attorney should be able to read and comment on your specific case during the first meeting.
A Good Criminal Defense Attorney Will Not Just Seek the "Standard Deal."
In many instances, someone charged with a crime will be offered a deal to plea out. They will get this offer whether they hire an attorney or not. If the lawyer you hire wants a fee to negotiate a plea bargain and says that trial is not a possibility, stay away. Why pay for someone to relay an offer to you? If getting out of jail quickly is your only goal, save your money for bond. An attorney who seeks a quick deal, and says that is their goal right up front, wants only to take your money and be done with the task as soon as possible. Note: Sometimes it IS in a client's best interest to take an offered deal quickly, but this is the exception, not the rule. See the section on "Trust." Read the rest of this guide to find out how to determine whether you think you can trust an attorney after the initial interview.
A Good Criminal Defense Attorney Will WORK for Good Results.
Good results comes from hard work, not 'connections,' experience with a particular prosecutor, or some other magic formula. Your attorney should seek to lower your bond, demand full discovery of evidence, investigate the case facts, talk to witnesses, know how the sheriff's office operates and what their rules are, write motions asking for the court to enforce the rules of procedure and evidence, where applicable, and otherwise put the State to their burden of proving the charges beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt. There is no substitute for the hard work of knowing and defending every case for every client.
A Good Criminal Defense Attorney Will Use Time and the Threat of Trial to Get Results
The biggest bargaining chip a defense attorney has is the credible threat of taking the case to trial. State attorneys are overworked, and when their cases drag on they can slowly but surely offer better terms to settle. When that doesn't work, or when you are determined to have your day in court, then your attorney needs to threaten to set your case for trial. Often, the State doesn't really do the hard work of prosecuting a case UNTIL it is set for trial and they know a jury will now hear their version of events. Only then do they truly evaluate the case.
If your attorney never goes to trial, doesn't believe in trial, has little trial experience, then that threat will not be credible. The State knows which attorneys will go to trial and which will go and can win.
Most cases do settle before an actual trial - but an attorney with a credible trial threat will get the best offers for you to consider before having to go to trial. Offers often mush better than any 'standard offer.'
A Good Attorney Will Win Your Trust and Keep It
A good attorney who does all of this work, who shows you their filed motions, who you can hear argue on your behalf in open court, and who knows your case and who keeps you informed, will win your trust. Face it, you hired this person to make decisions about your case that you are not equipped to make on your own - you need to trust their judgment.
Ask that attorney up front: Have you ever gone to trial? How often? Will you send me copies of filed motions? Have you received specific criminal defense training in any way? Do you have any knowledge of this department's police procedures? Will you investigate the facts? Will you depose any witnesses? In short - will you WORK on my behalf??
Due Diligence: Check the Florida Bar Website & Avvo Resources
Any attorney you consider hiring should have had no conduct issues with the Florida Bar. Go to Floridabar.org, click on "Find an Attorney," and type in their name. Is their listing current? Any conduct issues?
Check their Avvo profile, if they have one, and check client reviews, if any. Also check endorsements from fellow lawyers: are they detailed comments or just one-line blurbs? Check answers they've posted to questions: Are they thoughtful, informed, and consistent, or do they merely to state the obvious but make the lawyer look like a big contributor? Remember, good lawyers are not afraid of WORK.
Hiring an Attorney
Fee agreements vary, but be prepared to pay the attorney up front. Criminal cases can settle abruptly, and know that it is difficult for an attorney to collect an owed fee once the case is over. We don't like to sue our former clients!
If you are concerned about an up front payment, ask if the attorney will place half in his trust account and be willing to account for his time spent on your case and, if your case settles quickly, return the unused portion. Or, you can offer a retainer fee to drawn down against an hourly billing. A good attorney will certainly have a client trust account, and will certainly be willing to explain why they bill the way they do and offer alternatives that are fair to both of you. Expect to pay more for a trial as they require preparation and a good deal of time. Case handling and trial should be two clearly defined costs to pay depending on how your case evolves over time.
Remember, in these situations some decisions are attorney decisions, such as evidence, procedure and tactics, so you need to trust your attorney to make those decisions for you. But many others are joint decisions, like overall strategy, costs for discovery, level of investigation, and some are exclusively your decisions (accept an offer or not, testify at trial or not). Work with your attorney and they will work with you.
Be available, come to court dressed nicely, provide documents requested, read motions and other papers the attorney sends you. A good attorney will answer your questions, be available to you during key events, and try to keep you informed of what to expect and results of key events.
If you follow these general principles, you will find an attorney that you trust and, maybe, even like!