10 ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR CHOOSING THE RIGHT CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY
By Jonathan Blecher on June 22, 2023
- Look for an attorney who knows their stuff: Find someone with plenty of courtroom experience in criminal defense as their primary practice area, not someone who takes on a criminal case occasionally. The best options are former prosecutors and public defenders since they’ve likely handled a large volume of cases and have a deeper understanding of the real-world processes in court. They may also have experience with the judge assigned to your case. You want someone who knows the ins and outs of the legal system.
- Find a specialist: Criminal law is like a big buffet where many lawyers specialize in specific areas of criminal practice. The medical profession is like this, too. Make sure the attorney you choose specializes in the type of crime you’re accused of. Whether it’s DUI, a drug charge, domestic violence, or a theft crime, you want someone who knows their way around your case and the legal opinions dealing with it. You don’t want to have a specialist in traffic ticket defense defending a murder case. Some lawyers carry a “Board Certified” designation in criminal law or belong to groups devoted to a particular practice area.
For example, The National College for DUI Defense has members who devote no less than 75% of their practices to the defense of DUI/DWI cases and attend meetings and seminars focusing on legal and scientific issues. With NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), lawyers can participate in their “Legal Defense Team” and devote much of their practice to defending drug cases. These lawyers are well-versed in Search and Seizure law and Asset Forfeiture.
- Reputation matters: Do some digging to see what others say about the attorney you’re considering. Check with state bar associations to see if an attorney’s license to practice is valid or subject to any disciplinary action. Check online reviews on places like Google Business Profile, Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell, and Justia. Don’t just read the good reviews, either. However, take a bad one with a grain of salt since some disgruntled clients post negative reviews out of spite. A lawyer with a solid reputation has likely earned it through their skills and ethics.
- Communication is key: You need an attorney who will listen to you, understand your concerns, and keep you in the loop on the progress of the case. During the initial consultation, pay attention to how well they listen to you and communicate that they understand your priorities. Ask the attorney what the best methods of communication with them are. Some attorneys prefer texting ahead of a phone call while others may prefer e-mail. Some attorneys set up communications portals to be certain your information remains confidential. Clear and regular communication is vital throughout your case.
If your lawyer needs to reach you make sure you have a way to respond promptly since there are many time-sensitive decisions in any criminal case. You should also expect that your attorney will get back to you quickly when you reach them. However, respect their boundaries. Lawyers are people, too; they have personal lives and responsibilities, so try to contact your attorney during normal business hours. Of course, emergencies happen, and criminal lawyers expect them from time to time. Ask the prospective attorney how they would like to handle those situations.
- Make sure they have the resources: Criminal defense cases often require resources like investigators, expert witnesses, and access to legal databases. Make sure the attorney has reliable and consistent access to those resources. Criminal lawyers need access to research databases like Westlaw or LexisNexis. Ask the following questions:
- If they use case management software which helps lawyers track case information, client details, court dates, deadlines, and document management.
- If they access databases for public records, background checks, video databases, and expert witness directories.
- If they handle costs outside of legal fees.
- If the attorney employs a law clerk or paralegal and if you can communicate with them for information about your case.
- Talk about money: Don’t forget to discuss fees upfront. Many criminal lawyers charge a flat fee for cases or for specific work like filing certain types of motions or handling a plea hearing. Others accept a retainer and charge by the hour for their work. When the retainer is used up, the client must put more money in the attorney’s trust account. Criminal lawyers in Florida are not allowed to charge a contingency fee based on the outcome of a case. Discuss payment plans and if financing is available because the Florida Bar allows lawyers to offer it to clients. Some lawyers will structure their fees based on how far the case progresses. For example, they may accept an agree-upon amount for pre trial work, and additional amount for motion hearings, and another amount for trial. Post-conviction fees are always extra. Make sure you understand the costs involved and what you’re getting for your money.
- Availability matters: Criminal cases can be time-sensitive, so you’ll want an attorney who is accessible and responsive. Ask if they have the time to take on your case and devote the necessary time to defending you, as many criminal lawyers defend dozens of clients at any given time. Keep in mind that if a lawyer takes on your case, part of your legal fee is for the lawyer’s availability. Lawyers may forego taking on other work to defend you.
- Trust your gut: Trust and rapport are essential when working with an attorney. Consider whether the lawyer is the person you want to say the things in court that you would say if you had legal training. You need to feel comfortable discussing sensitive information and have confidence in their abilities. Trust your instincts when deciding. Interview other lawyers and compare their respective strengths and fee structure. The cheapest attorney isn’t necessarily the best attorney.
- Local knowledge is a plus: Hire an attorney who knows the local court system, is familiar with the judges’ policies/sentencing tendencies, and knows the current lineup of prosecutors. Clerks keep the courthouse running, and a lawyer who knows the Clerks knows their way around the courthouse. This can be a big advantage for you.
- Trial experience counts: While many cases are resolved without going to trial, having an attorney with trial experience is important. You want someone who is prepared to fight for your rights and interests in the courtroom if it comes to that. Prosecutors have more respect for a lawyer they know will announce “ready for trial”.