If you find yourself in trouble with the law, the first thing the police will usually do is read you your “rights” which means your Miranda Rights which start out with “You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law; you have the right to an attorney at all stages of the proceedings; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you free of charge.”
That is a very important admonition because it sets the stage for everything that is to follow in the criminal justice proceedings. The very first thing to do is remain silent and ask to speak to a lawyer. But then the question arises “Who do I call?” and “How much will it cost me?” That’s the purpose of this article – to answer those questions and give you some practical advice.
First, as for requesting a lawyer, it’s important to remember that just by saying those words you set into motion the requirement that the police should stop their questioning as soon as you demand a lawyer. Please note that you must remain silent for that to work, so remain silent until you speak to your attorney and afterward too.
Second, who do you call? Well, it is be a good idea to do a little research beforehand so you’re prepared in the off chance you may need a criminal defense attorney in the future. I suggest you take a look at the legal sites, such as Avvo.com, Lawline, Lawyers.com, etc. or look up lawyers on any good search engine. The important things to look for are the length of time practicing, whether they primarily practice criminal defense law, any distinctions like awards, etc. and any publications or higher offices they’ve held. (I happen to like Avvo.com because it actually gives you a rating for each lawyer between 1-10 and prior clients’ comments and other attorneys’ endorsements which are a helpful way to make a preliminary decision.) Of course, if you’ve already been charged and are sitting in a police station, call home and ask for help in getting a lawyer and do the best you can in the moment. You can always change attorneys later if the first one doesn’t work out. The following advice is for those who have the time and energy to really look for the best lawyer available for themselves at the best price.
Since each person is going to be unique, you must look at all of their characteristics before settling on a group of no less than three or more than six attorneys to interview. Of course, make sure that the attorneys you choose to interview all practice in the jurisdiction where your case is pending or likely to be pending. This is important because it always helps to have an attorney who knows the local Judges and prosecutors. Its also important that the attorney’s reputation is known by the prosecutor and Judge because they are the very people that will decide much of your case and it can make a big difference.
When interviewing each attorney, do your best to meet them in person so you can see if you have rapport with them and whether you feel respected by them as you speak with them. This is important because you may one day have to put your future in their hands if they are chosen to represent you. Look into their eyes and make sure they look you back in your eyes rather than looking away. If they won’t look you in the eye, they may not look the prosecutor or Judge in the eye either and that would not go over well once your case is underway.
You should also ask each one you interview how much they charge for various types of cases, from the lowliest traffic ticket to murder. Get some idea of how they charge, whether on an hourly or flat fee or a combination of the two. If the attorney is uneasy with setting out his or her fees, you should note that since it may become a problem down the road if they cannot communicate with you about fees up front.
Many attorneys in the criminal defense area offer flat fees for the entire case in order for the client to feel comfortable with their financial exposure. While this may feel pretty good up front for you because you get to know exactly what it will cost you, remember there are more ways to “skin a cat” than one. Often if an attorney sets a flat fee, he or she may want to spend as little time as possible to complete your case. It stands to reason because if they are only going to earn just so much on your case, they want to finalize it as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if you want to fight the case as hard as possible, that attorney could be thinking to him or herself that “this person wants to fight this case with MY blood” and may be resistant to pursuing your case beyond trying to get you to accept the very earliest plea reduction offered to you by the prosecutor. This doesn’t always work as well in reality as it seemed at the outset.
On the other extreme, if an attorney is charging an hourly fee, there is always the chance that he/she will want to spend an inordinate amount of time on your case in order to build up their bill as much as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a better defense, but it does mean you have the potential of an unlimited bill for the defense of your case. That may mean you get a better defense, but not necessarily. So what’s the answer.
Perhaps the best approach is a combination of the two ways of charging for criminal matters. To do that, the attorney may charge a flat fee for a set number of court appearances (3-5 times) and then set another amount for more than the initial amount of appearances. By doing this, the attorney will use his/her expertise to give you a fair fee schedule for the number of court appearances it usually takes to conclude a case of that nature and then, in the event the case requires more court appearances, then the client will pay a set amount of each additional appearance. That way, if the client is being unreasonable in their demands, they must pay for the additional court appearances it will take to pursue their defense. In other words, both parties compromise a little and that usually is the best arrangement for both.
As far as exactly how much you should pay for a defense attorney, that varies a lot from place to place and from attorney to attorney. In the metropolitan areas where competition is keen, fees can vary widely, however, in the field of criminal law you usually must pay a premium for an experienced attorney who has a well known reputation and who brings more knowledge and personal experiences along the way than a less experienced attorney might. Of course, if you want a less expensive attorney, you may have to settle for one with less experience who is looking to gain more experience. This will also depend upon the type of case you have pending against you.
If it’s a simple Driving While Intoxicated case and you really don’t want to argue about whether you did it, but want to get it over with as little discomfort as possible, then you might want to go to a less experienced lawyer and get reasonably good representation at a more reasonable fee. However, if you want to fight the case to the very end, then you will have to “pay up” for a much more experienced attorney who will take every part of the case apart and attack it with a vengeance.
Of course, that will cost you dearly, but it may make all the difference in the end, which often makes it well worth it. This is especially so if suffering a conviction could have a negative impact upon your employment or any licenses you may hold. This usually applies to those who have been charged with Felonies, however, it can also hold true with Misdemeanors.
One more factor can be the area in which you live which may have fewer attorneys. That can often lead to higher fees because there is less competition and often none of the attorneys want to break the lower
limits of fee schedules to garner more business, so they all keep their fees high and clients have no choice but to retain one of them at the higher fees.
Last, but not least, if you find yourself charged with a very serious matter and you absolutely must be acquitted by a judge or jury after a trial, then all bets are off. In such a situation, you must pay up for the best trial lawyer you can find in your immediate vicinity who has vast trial experience. If none of the attorneys in your area meet that standard, then you may have to reach out to those who do meet that criteria in other areas of your state or elsewhere. There is no way to adequately advise you about how much to pay for such representation, but when it comes down to it, if you are innocent and must be found not guilty, then the sky could be the limit and all that’s left is to figure out how you’re going to pay for it because there’s no choice.
Most important of all considerations is whether you trust the lawyer you finally choose. Remember, you are about to enter into a “War” with the authorities. Both the police force as well as the Prosecutor’s office generally have unlimited resources and usually have the intent to convict you once they have their eyes set on you. It’s up to your attorney to thwart them at every turn and attack everything they do through legal means. It often feels like the odds are overwhelmingly against you, but luck tends to favor those who are prepared and that is the hallmark of a great criminal defense attorney.
Of course, they must also be expert at cross-examination and that’s rather difficult to determine on your own. Perhaps the best way to determine who is the best cross-examiner in the local courthouse where your case is or may be pending is to visit it on a quiet day and watch a few trials to see who is most impressive to you. If there aren’t any trials or you’re not quite settled yet, then quietly ask as many Court Officers as you can find who they think is the best defense lawyer at cross-examination. You might also ask Court Clerks or Court stenographers if you can strike up a conversation with them. Remember, they are the people who actually get to see the majority of the lawyers do their work and they usually form their own opinions about them. Of course, don’t rely solely upon them, but ask enough people to get a feel for who they think is the best and then add that name to your list of lawyers you intend upon interviewing.
There are probably many more ways to choose a lawyer and get an idea about how much to pay them for their services, but these are perhaps the most salient and practical and I trust they assist you in this important decision.