10 Things to Look for in a Criminal Defense Attorney
Choose an attorney that goes to trial. Even if you want to resolve your case short of trial, you need a trial attorney because prosecutors only give their best offers to defense attorneys they know will go to trial and have a winning record. Make sure to ask a potential criminal defense attorney how many jury trials they have done and when was the last time they won a trial. Not all cases are winners so some losses are expected. In fact, be wary of defense attorneys who say they have never lost a trial. That means they have not tried very many cases. Every good defense attorney loses. Even Johnny Cochran lost from time to time. If the attorney loses the majority of his or her trials, however, or has not tried very many cases, find someone else.
Beware of an attorney that quotes a low rate, especially via email or over the phone. The price of representation depends on the amount of work to be done. A good defense attorney will want to meet with you in person, discuss the facts of the case with you first via a detailed interview and then will give you a quote. If you are looking for a bargain, you get what you pay for. Generally, if someone quotes you a low rate, it is because he or she plans to do very little work on your case and “dump truck” you. If you cannot afford a private attorney, think about getting a public defender. Sometimes that is a much better deal because you pay little or nothing and, assuming you get a good one, he or she will litigate your matter to the fullest.
Ask when the last time was the defense attorney went to a training. There are always new developments in the law that may affect your case. Unfortunately, many attorneys rarely go to trainings or only do the minimum to get by. The state bar only requires a little more than twenty hours of training every three years. Much of the training can be completed on-line via self-study. There is no requirement that the self-study even be current or up-to-date. A good defense attorney is always learning.
Look for a defense attorney that files motions, writs and appeals. Often judges feel they can make rulings in favor of the prosecution even if patently against the law because the defense attorneys rarely challenge their rulings. That means you may have a great case based on the facts and the law but the judge, wanting to favor the prosecution, rules against you. You need an attorney that has the reputation for challenging judges via appeals, writs, and motions. While attorneys like to believe they can talk themselves out of anything, a true warrior files briefs. An instructor once told me in law school, “What’s the job of an appellate judge? To embarrass a trial judge.” No judge wants to be embarrassed so if your attorney has the reputation of challenging rulings on appeal or via a writ or motion, you are more likely to benefit as a client.
Find someone who has experience handling cases like yours. For example, there are a lot of defense attorneys who focus their practice primarily on DUIs. There is nothing wrong with that if you have a DUI but if you have a rape case or a homicide, a DUI lawyer is not going to be much help to you. DUI lawyers spend a lot of money on marketing because DUI practice is a volume practice. For the most part, DUIs cost $1500-5000 to defend. That is not nearly enough to pay for overhead (office space, secretaries, copy machines, etc.) so in order to make a living, a DUI attorney needs to bring in a lot of cases and get rid of them fairly quickly. There is nothing wrong with this per se. DUIs are relatively simple and you either have a case or not. More serious cases, however, require more investigation, more research, and more of a time commitment. They also require more training and experience. A defense attorney who handles primarily DUIs may like the idea of the amount of money your case will bring in but may not have the knowledge, skill or experience to take on your case. Beware.
Reputation is everything. You may not have the kind of money necessary to hire a Johnny Cochran-type lawyer but you still want a defense attorney that is feared. In order to obtain such an attorney, you need to ask the right questions. Is your prospective defense attorney known in the county where your case is being handled? If not, the prosecutor may not be inclined to dismiss the case or give you a good offer. The prosecutor may assume that because he or she does not know your attorney, the defense attorney is not very good. More time or effort may be required to get what you need. That means your case may drag on for longer and may cost you more money. It is much more cost effective to choose a defense attorney that regularly practices in the county where your case is being heard.
Choose a defense attorney that wins. This may seem like common sense but potential clients rarely ask whether an attorney has any wins under his or her belt. Some assume because someone has been an attorney for a long time that he or she has a winning record. The reality may be that the defense attorney gets more people convicted than the prosecutor when you take into account guilty pleas. No one likes a loser. Your future may depend on the outcome of the case even if you do not do jail time. Make sure you have a winning attorney!
Accessibility is key. Many times, arrests, interrogations, and search warrants happen at odd hours. How you handle these early stages in a case can make or break the outcome. You need to be able to get in touch with your attorney at all times. I cannot tell you how many people have ruined their cases by talking when they should not or by giving the police permission to search. You need to be able to call, text, video chat, etc. your attorney when a situation arises. In some circumstances, you may even need an attorney that will get out of bed and rush to the police station. Make sure to ask a potential attorney if he or she is available after hours if there is an emergency. If not, you need to look elsewhere.
Beware of attorneys that emphasize their relationships with judges and prosecutors too heavily. While having positive working relationships with judges and prosecutors is not necessarily a bad thing, many defense attorneys have been known to value their relationships with prosecutors and judges more than their relationship with their client. They are not willing to challenge a judge or prosecutor out of fear of how it will impact their reputation even if challenging the judge or prosecutor will have a positive impact on the case. Also, the return on the investment in these relationships is not usually that high. Judges and prosecutors are concerned with how they are perceived politically. One bad newspaper article can follow them for a long time. So, they are rarely willing to risk their political career just because they like your attorney and play golf with him every Sunday. A lot of times, these relationships backfire because the judge or prosecutor use the relationship to influence the defense attorney not to fight. You end up being on the losing end.
Seek out an attorney that will be honest with you. It may feel good to hear that your case is the best case that has ever graced the courthouse and it will be dismissed quickly at little cost but that is not always realistic. What is more likely is that there are good things about your case and some not so good things. You may be in for a huge let down if an attorney tells you right off the bat that you have a wonderful case and it will be dismissed quickly just to get into your wallet. You may find yourself later down the road out of money and with an attorney who has suddenly decided there is no hope and you have to take a deal. While an attorney’s advice in the early, pre-retention stage is only as good as the information he or she receives from you, an honest defense attorney will tell you he or she needs to read the discovery and investigate the case before he or she can give you reliable opinion on the merits of your case. Someone who gives you an unqualified positive opinion without reviewing your case file or investigating the case is being negligent and trying to raid your wallet. You do not need that.