So, you or someone that you care about has got themselves arrested and it's time to hire a criminal defense attorney. I'm sorry to hear that. Choosing the right lawyer may be one of the most important decisions you'll ever make. Choose poorly and you could lose your money, freedom, or even your life!
Some lawyers lie
Let's get something straight up front. Not all criminal defense attorneys are honest and truthful. Some are liars and just care about your money. Granted, they are very far and few between, but you only need to encounter one to ruin your life. Here are some red flags that should send you running straight into the office of a different lawyer:
Your lawyer promises you a certain verdict or a dismissal
No criminal defense lawyer, no matter how good or famous or well-connected, can make you a promise that a case will be decided in your favor. They can be optimistic, they can be hopeful, but there is no way that they can be dead sure unless bribe money is changing hands somewhere. Even then, the verdict isn't assured because the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have a knack for catching on to dishonest lawyers and judges. The bottom line is this: If your lawyer promises a certain verdict or disposition, run away.
If the criminal defense attorney insists that he can deliver on his promise, and all he needs is a down payment, then ask for him to put his promises in writing and sign it. Then watch the waffling start.
Beware of the criminal defense lawyer who approaches you in the courthouse or at the police station and asks you to hire them. How professional is a lawyer that has to hang out and solicit strangers to get his next retainer?
Your best way to find a reputable criminal defense lawyer is to ask for referrals from your family lawyer or from someone who you trust, or to look through the newspapers for prominant criminal cases and the names of the defense attorneys that were involved. Here's a tip: Try to select the one who actually won the case, or at least negotiated a good deal if they did not win. Not all criminal cases are "winnable" and losing a case doesn't mean that the lawyer is bad.
When asking for referrals, make sure that you make it very clear that you need a criminal lawyer. This is not the time to be vague. While anyone with a law degree who has passed your State bar is "qualified" to represent you in a criminal case, you don't want a tax attorney defending your felony drug possesion case. Look for a lawyer who has experience defending your exact charges.
It isn't as much a matter of how long a lawyer has been practicing as it is how many cases like yours they have handled. A lawyer with thirty years of contract law experience is nowhere near as good as a criminal defense attorney who has handled 150 cases in five years.
Make sure that you hire a criminal defense lawyer who knows your local jurisdiction. You need a lawyer who knows his away around the courthouse that your case is going to be tried in. You want one who knows the judges and prosecutors and who has a good reputation for honesty. That can make a difference if a judge is undecided on a certain issue and could rule either way. A strange lawyer may not get the benefit of the doubt and that could hurt your case.
A local lawyer knows how the judge assigned to your case reacts under certain circumstances and how far he can stretch a point before he gets the gavel slammed down on him. You need every edge you can get when you are a defendant in a criminal case.
If you are thinking about representing yourself, I don't suggest it.
If you are facing the possibility of a jail or prison term, or a very large fine and a criminal record, you should definitely hire a criminal defense attorney unless you have no money to afford one and qualify for the services of a public defender or court-appointed attorney.
No matter how smart you are, even if you are an attorney yourself, you should be represented by someone who has no emotional ties to the outcome of the case. A fair, honest and experienced criminal defense lawyer is your best chance for keeping your freedom or, at least, winning a reduced sentence or one that is more favorable. There is an old saying in the legal industry of "He who represents himself has a fool for a client." It is not possible to do a good job of representing yourself. Every criminal case is different and you need the services of someone who can spot those differences and use them to your advantage.
A criminal defense attorney does so many different things on your behalf that it's difficult to imagine them all. Here are just some of the basics that you can expect:
They question witnesses in court.
They negotiate deals and terms with prosecutors that may result in reduced charges and lesser sentencing.
They suggest sentencing alternatives that a judge may consider.
They provide you with honest assessments of where your case is headed and what your alternatives are if you want to avoid a trial.
They attempt to create "reasonable doubt" in the minds of the jury which is all that the law requires for the jury to be forced to enter a verdict of not guilty.
They are familiar with legal precedent and possibly "unwritten" situations and customs that may affect the outcome of your case in a positive way.
They look for legal loopholes that may affect the outcome of your case.
A criminal defense attorney is aware and sensitive to errors or omissions that may occur during the course of your trial that are serious enough to warrant an appeal or a mistrial.
They have the time and expertise to thoroughly research your case.
They have the connections to hire qualified investigators who may uncover discrepancies in the prosecution's witness testimony or be able to impeach the creditability of a witness.
They do all of this to the best of their ability because they have pride in their work and they have chosen to be a criminal defense attorney because that is the type of law that they want to practice.
You have too much at stake not to have a pro of this caliber on your team. Take your time, do your research, and hire the best criminal defense lawyer you can find.