After you have suffered the indignity of arrest, handcuffs, and a night or two in jail, the very next thing you face is hiring a criminal defense attorney. What should you look for?
This article will give you a few pointers and also let you know what your obligations are going to be to the attorney and the Court.
Look for these things:
1. Experience. While this is not always an indication of a good attorney, since there are many attorneys who have been practicing badly for many years, it indicates he or she has seen many different scenarios, is familiar with the DA’s Office and Judges in the counties where he or she practices, and knows the nuances of the business. On the other hand, there are some very good criminal defense attorneys who will do an excellent job for you who have been at it fewer years, but who take the obligation to the client more seriously than some older attorneys. Listen to your gut. Is the attorney Board Certified in Criminal Law? While this credential does not always indicate a good attorney, it does indicate a certain experience criteria, knowledge of the law, and peer review has taken place. But there are many, many great criminal defense attorneys who meet all of the criteria mentioned below in this article who are not Board Certified.
2. Are you just a number? Do you get to meet with the attorney whose name is on the door, or some associate or the Legal Assistant? Which attorney will go to court with you? Does the attorney promise you the moon or guarantee a certain outcome in the case? Run from that attorney’s office. He is lying to you. Does the attorney make all of the decisions for you as to how the case will be disposed of, or let you make the decisions? How does the attorney’s staff treat you? Does it feel like your attorney really cares about you and shows respect for you, or are you “just a number”?
3. Communication. Does the attorney answer your phone calls and emails? Does she notify you about the date, time, and location of the next court date? Does he request all of the discovery items from the DA’s or County Attorney’s Office (police reports, lab reports, videos, witness statements, your confession, etc.) and let you see them in his office? Does he show you the statute you are alleged to have violated and tell you how the facts shown in the discovery prove each element of the offense or not? Does he tell you the plus-minus of rejecting the PBO and going to trial? Does she tell you all of the available legal and factual defenses? Do you get copies of all motions that are filed by the State and your attorney?
4. Plea Bargain Offer. Does she give you the Plea Bargain Offer (PBO) in writing as soon as it is given to her? Are all of the terms of the PBO explained to you? Are all of the consequences of accepting the PBO explained to you (such as a lifetime firearms ban, a Driver License suspension, or the loss of a professional license)? Is there a deadline for accepting the PBO? Have you been told what that deadline is? Does he tell you all of the available alternatives to entering a plea? Do you know what the range of punishment (minimum and maximum jail time or prison time and the fines that are possible) is for the offense with which you are charged? Are you eligible for probation (either straight probation or deferred adjudication)? Are there ways to get the case dismissed, non-disclosed, or expunged? Are you eligible for a Pre-Trial Diversion Program?
5. Attorney’s Fees. Does the attorney clearly explain his fee structure to you? Is there a singed Fee Agreement? Did the attorney go over that Fee Agreement and answer any questions you had before you signed it and paid your money? Is it a flat fee or hourly fee? What services do you get from the attorney for the flat fee? Are you charged for the Legal Assistant’s time? What is her hourly rate? What expenses are you responsible to pay? When is payment due? Do you get a bill at least monthly itemizing what the attorney did for you? Does the Fee Agreement provide a listing of the circumstances that allow the attorney to withdraw from your representation? What happens to the unearned fees when he withdraws? Legal representation is one area where you really do get what you pay for.
6. Terminating the Relationship. You may fire your attorney at any time. The attorney can do the same to you, except when doing so would place your case in jeopardy (such as two days before trial). When the case is concluded, does the attorney notify you that his services are completed and the file is being closed? If you part ways before the matter is included, you may request your file, as it belongs to you. However, all of the discovery items received from the DA’s or County Attorney’s Office will be returned to that Prosecutor, as you are not permitted under current law to have any copies of it, except for your own written or recorded statement.
7. Social Media and Website Ratings. Whenever you see an unfavorable rating for an attorney on a website or on social media, take that with a grain of salt. Often those come from clients who didn’t pay their attorney, didn’t cooperate with their attorney, and didn’t hear what they wanted to hear from their attorney. They blame their attorney for the outcome of their case rather than accept personal responsibility for their own choices. However, if you see repeated bad ratings time after time from many clients, that is a sign of a systemic problem with the attorney and you should stay away from that office. If you see repeated good reviews from clients, call and make an appointment.
Here are some of your obligations to your attorney and to the Court:
1. Answer the phone. When your attorney calls you, answer the phone or the email. If you change your phone number or email address, notify your attorney immediately. If you have a change of employment or home address, notify the attorney immediately. If you disappear into thin air, your attorney cannot help you and it will be all your fault.
2. Appear In Court. When your attorney tells you to be in Court, be there and be on time. Dress appropriately. Be sober. Don’t bring your children. Behave appropriately in Court.
3. Pay your attorney’s fees. If you don’t pay, your attorney will withdraw from your representation. If you are struggling to make payments, talk to him. He didn’t sign up for this to work for free.
4. Change your behavior. If you need to stop drinking, beating your wife, doing dope, compulsively gambling, driving drunk, etc., go get the help you need immediately. Your attorney does not provide these services, but he can tell you where to go to get them.
5. Call Your Bail Bond Company. If you don’t make your weekly call, they will go off your bond and a warrant will be issued for your arrest.
6. Stop Committing New Offenses. Makes sense doesn’t it? Committing more crimes while you have one or more cases already pending makes the attorney’s job that much harder and will likely close off some options for disposition.
7. Keep Your Mouth (and Keyboard) Shut. Don’t discuss the facts of your case with anyone, other than your attorney. No texting, emailing or social media posts to others. The police can get these, too, and the can get a search warrant for your phone. Your friends and family members can be subpoenaed to court to tell what you said to them. What you say to your attorney cannot be disclosed in Court.
8. Don’t threaten witnesses. It is a crime. The jury or judge will find out and you will pay for it. It may harm your case and undo all the good your attorney was trying to accomplish for you.
9. Tell your attorney the truth. Don’t sugar coat the facts. Don’t leave out any facts. Tell your attorney everything. He will hate to be surprised during the trial. It never helps for you to lie to your attorney. Always tell her about all of your prior convictions and arrests.
10. Accept Personal Responsibility. If you are good for the crime, recognize that fact and work with your attorney to try to mitigate the punishment you will receive.