Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How to Choose a Criminal Defense Attorney

If you're accused of a crime, you're probably feeling completely overwhelmed.  You may be facing jail time, probation, fines, loss of driving privileges, mandatory classes (i.e. drug / alcohol education, anger management, etc.), as well as other consequences that the court has no control over (loss of professional licenses, public embarrassment and loss of your job).

The first decision that you need to make is whether or not to hire an attorney and, if so, who to hire.  Where do you even start looking? What kind of price should you expect to pay?  How do you know which attorney is right for you?

Most people who find themselves in your position simply can't afford quality legal representation.  An experienced, qualified, competent lawyer can charge thousands of dollars to take on a new case.  His or her fees will vary dramatically based on the type of offense and its seriousness, the location of the court / travel time, the particular attorney's personal experience and qualifications, the anticipated difficulty of the case and other more arbitrary factors. 

Because of the costs involved with hiring a private defense attorney, the majority of criminal defendants opt for the Public Defender.  The PD's services are generally available for defendants who are able to show that they don't have the financial resources to hire their own private attorney.  The Supreme Court of the US has ruled that all criminal defendants have the right to effective assistance of counsel at every important stage of the case against them.  If you can't possibly hire your own attorney, the court will appoint one to represent you.  You may be responsible for reimbursing the county for the costs of the PD's services, based on your ability to pay (the PD is not always completely free). 

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to opting for the Public Defender.  On the plus side, they are probably your most affordable option.  They have tons of experience handling cases just like yours.  The PD will also be personally familiar with the prosecutor, the court, and the judge handling your case.  On the down side, Public Defenders are notoriously over-burdened with work.  They probably have 75 clients just like you that they need to get through today.  This means you'll get about 2 minutes of face time with your PD before you go before a judge and start making important decisions.  They may not have the time and resources that a private attorney could devote to your case and they probably won't be available to answer your questions or return your phone calls.  It sounds cliche, but you typically get what you pay for. 

If you're fortunate enough that you can afford a private attorney, how do you start to sort though all of the lawyers in your area?  Within a day or two of your arrest, you will be inundated with letters and advertisements from attorneys.  These letters are called "jail mail".  Some lawyers pay big money to access arrest records, then flood people with unsolicited ads at home.  Personally, I find this practice to be tacky.  It just smells like ambulance chasing.  I don't do it, but it must work because lots of attorneys do.

Other attorneys spend FORTUNES on radio or TV ads and even give themselves cute nicknames (e.g. "Top Gun").  These guys are not necessarily any better than the Public Defender and they can be at least as busy.  Ask yourself if you're really paying for their services or for their expensive radio ads.  Do you want to shell out thousands of dollars for an attorney who's too busy to return your phone calls?

It's a mixed blessing for us here in Southern California that the market is crowded with attorneys, some much better than others.  You probably can't throw a rock without hitting one (don't try that, though).  If you don't have a relative or family friend who practices law, you probably know someone who does.

The best way to find a great attorney is by personal referral if possible.  The next best way to find a good attorney is by making about 1,000 phone calls.  It's important to find one that you're personally comfortable with.  Lawyers sell peace of mind, and if your attorney doesn't make you feel comfortable and secure, then he or she is not doing the job properly.  That being said, reassurance is a double-edged sword.  Lots of attorneys will make outrageous predictions and guarantees.  They'll tell you specifically how they're going to beat your case.  They're lying to you.  An attorney can't possibly know the strength of the case against you without thoroughly reviewing all of the relevant evidence and witness statements, performing any necessary additional investigation and sitting down face-to-face with the DA.  Be extremely wary of any attorney who sounds too confident or who predicts exactly what will happen in your case before he or she even makes their first court appearance.

If you or a loved one has been arrested or charged with a crime, call us for a free consultation.  (714) 505-2468.  Ask for John.

Thanks for reading.

Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney