Tips to Know Before Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney
How to Find a Good Criminal Defense Law Firm
If you have been charged with a crime, you need to select a strong criminal defense law firm to represent you. Researching criminal defense law firms for the cost, ability, record, and experience will help you find the best representation. You also want to be able to build a relationship with the lawyers at the firm you choose, so you can plan and execute the most beneficial defense strategy possible for your particular circumstance. The best way to find a good criminal defense law firm is to develop a step by step method for making a sound decision.
Beginning to Search for a Criminal Defense Law Firm
Review the charges against you.A criminal charge is the government’s indication that you have violated some written law. The punishment for a criminal charge can vary from being required to pay a fine up to imprisonment. The severity of the punishment and the type of punishment will depend on the type of crime that you are charged with violating.As the level of the charge against you rises, the importance of finding the best attorney possible rises also. If you are facing felony charges, you will want to work very carefully to find the best attorney possible. On the other hand, if you are just facing a misdemeanor, you may be able to get by with any local attorney. For a small infraction, you might even be able to resolve the matter yourself.
- An “infraction” is generally considered the lowest level violation. An infraction is a penalty that is usually payable by a fine, but there is no risk of jail time. There may be some other attached penalty, such as points on your driver’s license, or a suspension of your license.
- A “misdemeanor” is a crime that has a maximum penalty of up to one year in a county jail.
- A “felony” is the most serious classification of crimes. A felony charge does not mean that you definitely will be sent to prison, but the charge does have the possibility of one year or more in the state prison. In some states, felony violations may even be punished with the death penalty.
- A “wobbler” is a term that describes a crime that could be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony (it “wobbles” between the two). The ultimate classification will depend on the sentence that the judge imposes.
Be realistic about your finances.Hiring a strong criminal defense firm is going to be expensive. For even the simplest representation, you will probably be paying a private firm at least ,000, and probably much, much more before your case is over.Hiring an attorney who works with a large firm is generally going to cost more than hiring an independent attorney or one who works with a small partnership.
- Whatever attorney you select, you will probably want to discuss finances and your ability to pay. You may be able to arrange for some payments over time, although most attorneys are going to require a sizable retainer up front, ranging from ,000 for a misdemeanor up to ,000 or ,000 for a potential felony.
- Contingency fee arrangements are prohibited in most jurisdictions for criminal work. Criminal defense attorneys are not allowed to make fees dependent on a promise of results.
Consider the public defender option.Before you move on to searching for a private law firm to handle your defense, consider the possibility of a public defender. The public defender is an attorney who works for the state or county, to provide legal representation to clients who cannot afford to hire private representation. If you have reviewed your finances and do not believe you can afford private counsel, this may be a valid option.
- You do not have to be unemployed to qualify for a court appointed attorney. The court will consider the total circumstances regarding your finances in deciding whether you qualify.
Ask for help, if you are incarcerated.You may need to have your friends or family help get you a lawyer when you are in jail. If you are not sure about the lawyer your family hired, you may use the person just at the arraignment, and conduct a search for a new lawyer when you are released.
Finding a Criminal Defense Law Firm
Contact your state or local bar association.The bar association is an organization of lawyers in a particular area. If you look up your local bar association online, you are likely to find lists of lawyers, often arranged by specialty.
Talk to friends or colleagues for recommendations.If you don’t know an attorney or firm to contract, perhaps your friends or business colleagues might. Ask for suggestions or referrals to a firm that someone has used before.
- If someone has used an attorney for civil matters (i.e., non-criminal), you may still take that referral and contact the attorney. If the attorney works for a large enough firm, the firm may handle criminal as well as civil matters. Alternatively, that attorney may know someone who does do criminal work.
Research law firms on the Internet.You need to be careful when reviewing advertising for attorneys, whether on the Internet, on television or in print. A flashy advertisement or well-designed Internet page does not really tell you anything substantial about the attorney’s experience. Look for facts about experience, cases handled and courts in which the attorney centers his or her practice. Advertising can be helpful, but read carefully.
- The ABA offers a nationwide Lawyer Referral Directory.From that site, you can select your state, and you will be directed to the local contact information for the bar association that can help you find an attorney close to you.
- As an example, the State Bar Association of Texas has an online search feature. You can search for attorneys by name, or by their field of specialty.
- Another example of a search tool is offered by the New York State Bar Association. This group lists a Lawyer Referral Service on its home page.By calling the Lawyer Referral Service at 800-342-3661, you can be referred to an attorney in your geographic area, with the skills that you need.
Interviewing Possible Attorneys and Firms
Meet with the attorney for an interview.When you are selecting an attorney, you need to treat your first meeting like a job interview, with you as the employer. Ask questions that will help you decide if the attorney and his or her firm is someone you will want to work with and who can do what you need.
Inquire about the attorney's experience.Success does not always go together with years of experience. However, an attorney with more experience with the type of charges that you are facing is more likely to be able to help you. You should also ask about the history of the firm. If the particular attorney is relatively new, but he or she is part of an established law firm, then you can expect a high level of support for your case.
Ask about court experience in the county where you are charged with the crime.An attorney with local experience will be familiar with local procedures, the temperament of prosecutors, and how to manage the court schedule. This is particularly more relevant to criminal matters than civil matters. Criminal cases are controlled by the local district or county attorney, so procedures and standards of prosecution are likely to differ from one county to the next. You will want an attorney or firm with experience in your county.
- If you are near a large city, such as New York, Boston, or Chicago, for example, you may find that some of the most experienced firms are in the main city, but they have experience practicing in the county courts for the surrounding area.
Find out about similar cases and results.If you are charged with DUI, for example, you want an attorney who understands DUI cases, who has handled them in the past, and who has a good success rate of getting his clients released or limiting the charges against them. If you are facing a more "white collar" crime, then you will want a firm with experience handling that type of case.
Ask about the attorney’s style in dealing with conflicts.The first phase of any criminal matter involves a level of negotiating between your attorney and the prosecution. You want an attorney who is a good negotiator, and who can keep focused if the evidence against you is strong.This is also a key issue in selecting an attorney with local experience in your county. After a number of years practicing in one area, the attorney is likely to have built up relationships with prosecutors. An attorney with a good relationship can work in your favor.
Find out about fees, pricing, and billing procedure.When you are focused on the criminal charges against you, it can be difficult to think about finances. But you need to talk openly about this right up front. Ask if the attorney will bill you by the hour, or a flat fee for the entire project you need.
Try to understand the attorney’s level of communication and availability.You want an attorney you can talk to, and someone who will be available when you need help. If you are considering someone who works with a larger firm, you are likely to have a higher level of communication, because if your attorney is not available, someone else may be able to help you.
Finalizing Your Selection
Research the firm or attorney’s discipline record.It is important to find out that any attorney you are considering is in good standing with the bar association. Attorneys can be punished by their state for a variety of things. Some are minor, like being delinquent in paying dues, and some are major and result in losing their license to practice law.
- The legal research site Findlaw.com has a handy reference that links to each state to help you check your prospective attorney’s discipline record.
Check out the Martindale-Hubbell rating for any firm you are considering.Martindale-Hubbell is a publisher that administers a peer review rating system of attorneys and law firms. Their rating system includes a combination of an ethical rating and a legal ability rating. A rating of “AV” is the highest rating a law firm or individual lawyer can earn. This rating is based on the opinions of peers and judges and gives you a good indication of the legal ability, reputation, and ethics of a particular law firm.
Ask to speak with one or more satisfied clients.An experienced attorney should be able to put you in touch with prior clients whom he or she has represented, so you can talk with them. Find out from them what the experience was like and how satisfied they were with the attorney.
- It is more common to speak with references for civil representation rather than criminal. However, if the attorney is good, he or she will have had some positive results, and those clients may be willing to speak with you.
- Some counties have online dockets or a public records terminal. If this is the case where you are, you may be able to search by the attorney's name and see what kind of cases he or she has handled.
Search the attorney’s history online.You can also conduct online searches of both the attorney and client names to find records, written court opinions, and newspaper articles. If the attorney handled any matters that became of public interest, you may find stories or articles that will give you some insight into his or her experience.
- Perform an online search of the attorney's name along with words like "review," "complaint," or something similar. These searches can lead you to online complaint sites, blogs, and forums, where you may learn more about the attorney. Just realize that what you read on these sites are rarely substantiated, and your opinion may be different than someone else’s.
Base your decision on the level of the charges against you.If you are charged with a serious felony, it becomes important to ask about trial experience. The vast majority of cases are handled by plea agreement. In lower level cases you want a shrewd negotiator who has a good relationship with the prosecutor. If incarceration is a serious possibility because of the level of the crime or your history, you need a trial specialist. Ask about the number of trials the attorney has conducted, the types of charges, and the outcomes.
Review your retainer agreement.After you make the final selection, the attorney should send you a retainer agreement. This may be in the form of a letter, or it may be a more thorough contract. When you receive it, read it over carefully and make sure that you understand it.
- Check to see the amount of retainer that you are required to pay, and make sure you know where that money is coming from.
- See if the attorney’s stated fee includes taking your case to trial, if necessary. Some attorneys may quote you a range for their fee, but then going to trial may cost extra. You need to understand how much you are paying, and what it covers.
- Look for extra costs for experts. Your case may not need an expert witness. But if it does, you should find out in the beginning what that will cost you. Find out if that is a cost that you will be expected to pay, or if that is something that the attorney includes in his representation of you.
Video: What Is The Best Way To Pick A Criminal Defense Attorney
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