What Should I Look for in a Criminal Defense Attorney? Advice from a Criminal Defense Attorney
(Disclaimer: I AM a Criminal Defense Attorney. In writing this blog article, I have tried exceedingly hard to be even-handed, and not to describe myself and my type of practice as the only “right”choice. I may or may not have been successful. I leave it to the reader and my clients to judge.)
I’ve heard it said that you should hire the most expensive attorney you can afford. This would be excellent advice if the most expensive attorneys were always the best attorneys. Truth is, they can be excellent. Or, they can be horrible. There is no hard and fast rule that will make your decision easy.
There is a lot to be considered in who you hire to handle your criminal case. Criminal cases can have severe, far-reaching, and often un-expected repercussions. Who you hire as an attorney is an incredibly important decision. As a sneak peek at the conclusion at the end of this blog, first and foremost, you need to hire who you feel comfortable with, and who is comfortable with your type of case.
However, before I get to the “moral of the story” so to speak, let’s deal with some realities. Some successful fancy looking firms are quite affordably priced—perhaps surprisingly so. Some successful small firms and solo practitioners are extremely expensive. What does this mean about their ability to give you the attention you deserve on your case? If a firm that seems large and successful is charging fractions of what other’s charge for the same type of case—simple logic suggests that they must be handling a MUCH heavier caseload. Will this adversely affect the handling of your case? It depends on the firm, how heavy the caseload really is, and the individual attorney that ends up being assigned to your case. On the other hand, a small but exceedingly expensive firm may be able to do quite well for themselves handling a much smaller caseload. But again—they are exceedingly, and even prohibitively, expensive for most people. In most cases for most firms, the link between the fee and the case-load is simple math and business logic. (I say most firms because younger law practices, even with experienced and capable attorneys and lighter case-loads, may charge less as they build their clientele.) But make no mistake—all law firms, big or small, are businesses with their own business models. What size firm is best for you, and how much to pay is right for you, likely will be determined by your financial resources
Differently sized firms also affect your experience in other ways. Large firms may have their own administration personnel that handle financial matters with clients, thus freeing up attorneys to only handle criminal matters and avoid the business side of the relationship with the client. This can have advantages. It can also mean that, instead of dealing with one or two people regarding your case, you deal with a number of different people, who sometimes seem to rotate. Also, at a larger firm, the attorney assigned to handle your case may or may not be the person you met during your consultation. In fact, often it will not be the same person. On the other hand, a solo practitioner with no employees or with perhaps a receptionist and a paralegal may be able to give you a single point of contact for all aspects of your case, both the legal as well as the financial. However, when there needs to be an uncomfortable conversation about missed payments, that conversation has to take place with your attorney. This may be better, after all, your attorney probably knows you best and may be willing to work with you. Or you may be embarrassed about the payment issues you are having, thus stressing the attorney-client relationship. Which one is better? It depends on your personality and your personal preference.
But what about the experience of the attorney? I have seen some terrific young Criminal Defense Attorneys. I have also seen some horrible ones. However, years and years in practice may or may not be a plus. Some attorneys that have seemingly been practicing forever appear tired and should perhaps consider retiring. In this sense—attorneys are like teachers. The younger attorney may be enthusiastic, aggressive, and talented. The older attorney may not. On the other hand—there are many experienced attorneys that have become masters at our craft over the years. In fact—if you were to have a consultation with me but want to go in another direction (hey—I’m not right for everyone), there are both some older and some younger attorneys I would put on my list of who I would trust to properly handle a criminal case.
I know—I am being as clear as mud in this article. I am providing no clear direction, giving both the good and the bad of varying attorneys and types of practices. However—the fact of the matter is that the right attorney or firm for you may not be the right attorney or firm for someone else. Every attorney, and every firm size, has its plusses and minuses. Also, your financial situation may help dictate who you can hire, and that’s ok. There are many excellent attorneys that do not charge an arm and a leg. The key is finding someone with a track record of success handling the type of case you need handled, at a price you can afford, that you feel comfortable with. You may need to confide in your attorney, and you will definitely need to trust your attorney. The most expensive attorney in the state will not be the right attorney for you if you do not feel comfortable with them.
While I have been somewhat equivocal throughout this article, let me raise one issue a little more firmly. For an attorney, a consultation is an opportunity to get business. There is nothing wrong with an attorney doing a consultation, we all have to. It is an opportunity for the lawyer to try to win your business and, frankly, decide if he or she wants you for a client. It’s also an opportunity for you to decide if you want that person as your attorney. However, be wary of attorneys that try to win your business by trying to scare you into hiring them. Certainly, criminal charges are not to be taken lightly, but anyone that tries to sell you on doomsday if you don’t hire them and not someone else is someone to be wary of. On the opposite end of the spectrum, be wary of attorneys that seem to overpromise and/or make light of the charges you are facing. It is awfully tempting as an attorney to, with great swagger and confidence, overpromise on the likely result to a potential client. The result they seem to promise may not be complete snake-oil, it may be possible. But if they make it sound like a virtual foregone conclusion if you hire them—be very careful. The fact is that no attorney knows enough about your case to make firm predictions on the outcome before reviewing the discovery and reports from the District Attorney’s Office. A wise attorney tries hard not to over-promise, but instead to over-deliver. Keep this in mind as you search for the attorney and/or firm that is right for you.