What Should I Ask Before Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney?

If you or a loved one faces a criminal case and has decided to hire a criminal defense attorney, the next question is who?  There are certainly many criminal defense attorneys with varying amounts of experience, located in different cities and from a wide variety of law schools and undergraduate institutions.

If you have a recommendation you trust, it is certainly smart to contact that attorney and perhaps even hire the attorney if the type of case is similar to the one the “recommender” had.
 
Trust is perhaps the most important thing to consider in selecting an attorney.

You want to be able to sleep well at night, knowing your attorney is doing everything that is smart to do and in a way that gets the best result.  You want to know your attorney cares about you and understands your particular concerns, whether you face prison or significant jail and whether you have professional, gun ownership, sex offender registration, licensing or immigration consequences of a conviction.  Does the attorney listen to you or interrupt you?
 
Trust usually depends on knowing your attorney has significant experience in the relevant legal area and the courthouse where your case is venued.  Some attorneys have summaries of their case results on their website categorized by the type of case.  Read them and see if the attorney worked hard and cared about the client.  Was the result good?  Are the case facts similar to your case?

Has the attorney received any award or recognition by his peers?  Does he or she have pride in his or her work?  Does he volunteer legal services for others or help others for free, i.e. by answering questions for free on Avvo or writing articles about legal topics of importance to clients?  The reason why this is important is because the attorney is investing in his or her reputation, showing it matters to this attorney.  He will thus defend to not only help you, but to help his reputation stay strong.  It matters to his or her future, not just yours.  You want someone who knows he has “skin in the game,” too.

If the attorney is familiar with a particular district attorney’s demeanor or background, that certainly can help if that district attorney will most likely handle the case.  It the attorney is familiar with the judge, this can also help, but it is not always relevant because quite a bit of the case resolution through plea bargaining depends on interaction with the prosecutor only.  A judge cannot engage in plea bargaining.

The reason experience is so important is for credibility in the courtroom.  Your attorney should be someone the prosecutor respects and the judge considers as having a good reputation.  Your attorney should know what issues matter most toward negotiating a fair plea bargain and should know how the prosecutor responds to aggressive negotiating or more respectful, less aggressive negotiating.

In speaking with an attorney you are thinking about hiring, you will want to discuss the facts of the case to hear the attorney’s suggested tactics.  Keep in mind, that the best answer is sometimes frustrating to hear and that is “well, it matters.”  The attorney will then tell you what additional facts are needed and why.  Then, if the attorney does have some type of specific plan, will he or she appear in court for you or with you, or will the attorney subcontract out the appearance or assign it to a young associate who may know nothing about the big issues in the case?

An attorney’s education is important, but the attorney’s experience and attitude is perhaps more important.  Does the attorney have a sense of urgency, tempered by what is reasonable?  Will he or she go to the scene of the arrest if necessary?  Does he or she even talk about this?  Does the attorney immediately request the police report?  Does the attorney provide you with copies of all correspondence and the police report (redacted)?  Does the attorney care about your input or answer your questions with patience and respect?  Does the attorney discuss private investigators?

There is a difference in the work habits of attorneys who went to a challenging undergraduate and challenging law school.  The attorney’s life experiences can also factor into how respectful the attorney is of you as a client.

We leave one of the most important factors for last: availability.  Does the attorney answer his phone?  Does he return calls promptly?  Does he respond fully to e-mails?  Is his staff courteous?

After considering all these factors, consider the attorney’s fee.  Some attorney’s fees are simply so low that it sends a message that the attorney is not too busy and is desperate for experience.  On the other hand, some attorney’s fees are so high that it simply is not affordable.  However, in considering what is affordable, we ask that clients keep in mind that a conviction is forever.  While expungement in California may change the last plea in the case and dismiss the case, the record of the charges and the case being filed against you is not deleted or erased like in other states.  It lasts forever.

For more information about being represented by an attorney, please click on the following articles:
  1. Why Hire a Private Attorney?  Why Shouldn’t One Use the Public Defender?
  2. DUI Checkpoint Stops – One Way a Creative Attorney Believes Anyone Can Beat Them
  3. What Are Attorney Objections to Evidence in Court?
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