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What to Look for in a Private Criminal Defense Attorney

The attorney you're looking for will probably not be the same person who handled your will, or helped you buy a house, or whom you aunt used when she was involved in a car accident. These all were civil attorneys, whereas you want someone who specializes in criminal law. (In small town, however, you may have no choice but to hire someone who practices in both arenas.)

Civil versus Criminal Attorneys

Private criminal defense lawyers tend to practice either on their own or in small partnerships, and in a specific geographical setting. By contrast, attorneys who handle civil cases tend to congregate in large corporate law firms with branch offices in many cities.

While personality differences between civil and criminal attorneys may account for some of the variance, the biggest factor is the differing nature of the work:

  • Big-firm civil attorneys tend to repre­sent companies who do business all over the country or the world. Criminal defense lawyers represent individuals whose problems are usually quite local.

  • Companies represented by big-firm civil lawyers have a continual need for legal advice and representation. Individual criminal defendants tend to be one-shot players with nonrecurring or sporadic legal needs.

The typical private defense attorney has had several years of experience working for the government before going into private practice, either as a prosecutor (often, a district attorney or city attorney) or as a public defender.

The Local Advantage

A defendant should try to hire an attorney with experience in the courthouse where the defendant’s case is pending. Though the same laws may be in effect throughout a state, procedures vary from one courthouse to another. For example, the D.A. in one county may have a no-plea-bargaining policy with respect to a certain offense, while the D.A. in a neighboring county may have no such policy. Or, defense attorneys in one county may know which prosecutors are more likely to plead right before trial, as against those who will negotiate in advance. Local attorneys also know the police officers and how they perform in court before juries. Defendants should prefer attorneys who have experience with local procedures and personnel.

Experience with the Crimes Charged

A defendant should also try to find an attorney who has represented defendants charged with the same or very similar offenses. Modern criminal law is so complex that many lawyers specialize in particular types of offenses. For example, one may specialize in drunk driving, another in drug offenses, and another in white-collar crimes (generally referring to nonviolent, money-related crimes, such as tax fraud or embezzlement).

It is perfectly appropriate for a defendant to inquire during the initial consultation about the attorney’s experience. A defendant should not hire a lawyer who refuses to specifically discuss her experience or gives vague, unrevealing answers.

EXAMPLE: Zach Michaels is charged with driving under the influence of alcohol (drunk driving). Zach might ask the lawyer he’s thinking of retaining such questions as:

  • “Have you represented people who have been charged with drunk driving?”

  • “What percentage of your practice involves representing people charged with drunk driving?”

  • “Are you certified as a specialist in drunk driving cases?” (Some states allow attorneys to qualify as specialists in specific areas of practice; others do not.)

  • “What percentage of your practice involves appearing in the court that my case will be assigned to?”

Because most private lawyers have years of criminal law experience either as a prosecutor or as a P.D. before going into private practice, defendants should not have to sacrifice quality to find attorneys who have local experience with their types of cases.

The Personal Factor

A defendant’s lawyer speaks for the defendant. No matter how highly recommended a lawyer may be, it is also important that the lawyer be someone with whom the defendant is personally comfortable. The best attorney-client relationships are those in which clients are full partners in the decision-making process, and defendants should try to hire lawyers who see them as partners, not as case files.

Thus, defendants should ask themselves questions such as these when considering whether to hire a particular lawyer:

  • “Does the attorney seem to be ­someone I can work with and talk openly to?”

  • “Does the attorney explain things in a way that I can understand?”

  • “Does the lawyer show personal concern and a genuine desire to want to help?”

  • “Do the lawyer’s concerns extend to my overall personal situation, rather than just the crime with which I’m charged?”

  • “Does the lawyer appear to be a person who will engender trust in prosecutors, judges, and, if necessary, jurors?”

This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.

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