If you’ve been arrested for or charged with a crime—regardless of how serious—it’s a good idea to talk to an attorney. Depending on your financial situation, you might consider hiring a private criminal defense lawyer. (Another option, again depending on your finances, is court-appointed counsel; self-representation is also possible but usually a bad idea.)
Hiring a criminal defense attorney is an important decision and there are lots of attorneys who handle criminal cases. Below you’ll find some information that might help you navigate the process.
It’s usually best to talk to a criminal lawyer as soon as possible after being arrested. Although your first court date may be a ways out, finding a lawyer can take some time, and there might be things you can do in the meantime to improve the outlook of your case. For instance, if your case involves drugs or alcohol, an attorney might advise you to get into treatment or start going to 12-step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), even before going to court for the first time.
Finding the Right Attorney
Because there are so many criminal defense attorneys out there, the task of selecting one can be daunting. Here are some suggestions and considerations that might help you make the choice.
Most criminal defense attorneys offer prospective clients a free initial consultation. Taking advantage of this opportunity to meet the attorney and get some of your questions answered doesn’t obligate you to hire the attorney. But an in-person consult will often give you a good idea of whether you can work with a particular attorney or firm.
You should come to your consultation prepared—bring all your case-related paperwork and a list of the questions you want to ask.
Questions to Ask
There’s no surefire way of picking the “best” criminal defense attorney. But asking some questions can help to inform your decision. Below are some things you might want to ask about.
Practice areas. You should ask how much of the attorney’s practice is devoted to criminal defense. Some attorneys will occasionally take a criminal case, while others do all or almost all criminal defense. An attorney who focuses on criminal defense is more likely to be up to date on criminal law and familiar with how things run in criminal courts.
Within criminal law, there’s also a difference between state and federal cases. The two court systems follow different laws and procedures. It’s a good idea to ask whether an attorney you’re thinking of hiring has experience in the court system where you’ve been charged.
Experience. The number of years an attorney has been practicing criminal defense is an important consideration. But keep in mind, lots of experience doesn’t always equate to quality representation.
You should ask how much experience the attorney has defending against the kind of charge you’re facing. Criminal defense attorneys often have niche areas that they focus on. For example, many criminal lawyers do primarily DUI cases. And there are other attorneys who concentrate on more serious felony charges, like homicide. Chances are you’re going to want to go with an attorney who is familiar with the type of case you have.
Local knowledge. Also, ask about whether the attorney is familiar with the court you’ll be going to. An attorney who regularly practices in a certain area is more likely to know the prosecutors and judges and their tendencies. For example, an attorney might know that a particular judge is especially harsh with DUI offenders and to therefore avoid that judge’s courtroom when defending against drunk-driving charges.
Fees. To avoid disputes in the future, it’s important to know ahead of time how much you’ll be paying for your case. Typically, attorneys either charge an hourly or flat rate. An attorney who charges an hourly rate bills for the actual time spent working on the case. With flat-rate fees—which are perhaps more common in criminal cases—you just pay a set amount for your case. For example, a lawyer might charge $2,500 to handle a DUI case, regardless of how many hours of work it takes. But you should always ask what the flat fee covers. Sometimes attorneys do a pretrial flat fee but there’s an additional fee if the case goes to trial. It’s also a good plan to ask about whether the attorney anticipates any other costs such as expert witnesses or investigations.
Who’ll be handling your case. When you hire an attorney who’s a solo practitioner, you can be fairly certain about who will be working on your case. But if you hire a law firm with multiple attorneys, you’ll probably want to ask who will be responsible for your case and coming to court with you. Clients are sometimes dissatisfied when they think they’re hiring one lawyer—the lawyer they speak to when hiring the firm—but another attorney from the firm ends up being in charge of the case.