BELOW ARE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS TO ASK EVERY POTENTIAL CRIMINAL DEFENSE OR DUI ATTORNEY YOU CONSULT. You are the Client, and you need to feel confident that you made the best choice for you. You and the attorney you hire may work together for an extended period of time depending on your case---so you need to be sure that you make the best choice.
1.) How many clients do you have at any given time?
This is important to know because you want to make sure that your lawyer will be accessible when you need to contact him. If a lawyer has more clients than he can reasonably handle, then you may not receive return phone calls in a timely manner. Further, when your court date arrives, your lawyer may not be in court when your case is called if he has other clients' cases that same day, which may be held in other courts (or even other counties). Attorney Stephenson's business model is to keep his client list low enough so that each case can be handled thoroughly and effectively. His office intentionally keeps approximately 20 clients (or less) at any given time, which enables him to devote all the necessary time to each client, and to be accessible to every client.
2.) If we can't resolve or settle my case in General Sessions Court, will you conduct a preliminary hearing?
For criminal cases that arise in General Sessions Court, the preliminary hearing (often called a "prelim") can be a crucial step in the process of defending a criminal allegation. It is the Defense's first opportunity to obtain sworn and recorded testimony from the witness(es) making the allegations against you. It allows the Defense to: challenge probable cause, raise certain defenses, test the credibility of the witnesses, and get a feel for whether additional charges may arise, among other things. Some attorneys will advise their clients to WAIVE their right to a preliminary hearing for no apparent reason (except for possibly attorney-laziness). Sometimes there is a legitimate, tactical reason to waive a prelim, but typically, it is NOT a good idea to give up that right!
3.) Do you run a debt-free business?
This is important because if your lawyer is deep in debt with business loans, then he may be scrambling to let "anybody and everybody" hire him just so he can keep his overhead paid. That problem would relate to question (1) above, where your case may not be getting the attention it deserves. Further, if your lawyer can't keep out of debt, does that concern you that he wants to represent your interests? Attorney Stephenson runs his business without any loans.
4.) What does your experience tell you about how you would approach and handle my case, and WHAT IS your experience handling criminal cases?
Every lawyer has different experiences. Every client's case is unique, even when some of them have similarities. How your lawyer will approach your case (i.e., research and review the facts and the law, negotiate with the Assistant District Attorney ("ADA"), address the judge in court, communicate with witnesses and alleged victims, and KEEP YOU UPDATED) is something in which you need to be confident and comfortable. Attorney Stephenson draws on his experience handling cases in numerous courts and counties, dealing with numerous Assistant District Attorneys and Judges. Certain approaches are more effective depending on the client, the particular ADA, the judge, type of case, and where the case is in the court system. A good lawyer will tailor his approach depending on the client's particular case.
5.) Have you ever been disciplined by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility?
The Board regulates attorneys and disciplines those who run afoul of the Rules of Professional Conduct (the ethics rules). Often times, an attorney who is disciplined has done (or failed to do) something that negatively impacts clients, such as neglecting a case by performing below reasonable standards, failing to file appropriate motions, failing to communicate with clients, or being dishonest. You can check an attorney's public discipline history at the
. Attorney Stephenson has never been disciplined by the Board (either publicly or privately), and seeks to maintain the highest level of ethical practice and client satisfaction.
6.) Will you allow me to email you questions and concerns, and will you promptly respond to them?
In this day and age, email is becoming increasingly vital to the expeditious sharing of information. Clients want their questions answered and their concerns addressed as quickly as possible. Email is often the fastest way to do that. Attorney Stephenson allows (and encourages) all of his clients to email him, and he always responds to clients' messages within 24 hours (usually much faster, but 24 hours is the limit that he has placed on his email return policy).
7.) If I call you about my case, will you personally call me back?
Clients like to know that their defense attorney is personally handling their business. On that note, clients often prefer to hear updates on their cases directly from their lawyer, rather than from an employee of the law office. Attorney Stephenson speaks with his clients directly. For administrative matters, an assistant may contact clients; but concerning substantive issues about his clients' cases, he speaks with them directly and keeps them informed.
8.) If you don't know the answer to an issue that arises in my case, will you put forth the time and effort to find the answer?
Each year, the legislature passes new laws, courts make important decisions that affect the laws (and sometimes alter or overrule them), agencies changes their policies, and courts changes their practices. It is important for lawyers to keep abreast of these changes. Lawyers must constantly learn. It is not enough to rest on the information learned in law school and in handling past cases. Attorney Stephenson has learned a lot in his time as a lawyer, and he certainly does not know everything there is to know about the law. However, in cases where a client has a new or unique issue, he puts forth the time and effort to learn what he needs to address each client's situation.
9.) Are you attempting to guarantee a particular successful result in my Criminal Defense case?
If you meet with a prospective criminal defense attorney who promises you "I'll make sure we get this charge reduced", or "I guarantee I'll get this case dismissed", etc., then BEWARE of that attorney. Tennessee criminal defense lawyers are ethically prohibited from making such guarantees of success to criminal defense clients. The basis for this rule is Tennessee Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5, which prohibits criminal defense lawyers from charging contingency fees. A guarantee of a certain result implies that if the attorney cannot obtain that result, then the fee would then be refunded to the client, which runs afoul of the prohibition against contingency fees in criminal cases. Attorney Stephenson works to obtain all of his clients the best possible results, and he will never make unethical promises to induce potential clients to hire him. His law license, reputation, and personal moral code are too valuable to run a business that way.
10.) Do you carry malpractice insurance?
While no attorney ever wishes to have a claim brought against him or her for malpractice, that does not mean that a good attorney should avoid having insurance. Would it be wise for a doctor to not have malpractice insurance? Of course not---but that does not mean that the doctor intends on providing poor medical services. Rather, it is just plain good business sense to have insurance. Attorney Stephenson runs his law office responsibly. One of the parts of being a responsible attorney is having solid malpractice insurance to protect his office