Selecting a Criminal Defense Attorney || Criminal defense attorney

Selecting a Criminal Defense Attorney

If you’ve been arrested for or charged with a crime—regardless of how serious—it’s a good idea to talk to an attorney. Depending on your financial situation, you might consider hiring a private criminal defense lawyer.

Hiring a criminal defense attorney is an important decision and there are lots of attorneys who handle criminal cases. Below you’ll find some information and tips to help you find and choose the best criminal defense lawyer for you.

How to Find a Good Criminal Defense Attorney

Because there are so many criminal defense attorneys out there, the task of finding and selecting one can be daunting. If your case is in federal court (versus state court), you’ll also want to make sure your search focuses on finding a federal criminal defense attorney.

Start Looking for a Lawyer Immediately

It’s usually best to talk to a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Although your first court date might be a way out, finding a lawyer can take some time, and there might be things you can do in the meantime to improve the outlook of your case. For instance, if your case involves drugs or alcohol, an attorney might advise you to get into treatment or start going to 12-step meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), even before going to court for the first time.

Where to Start When Looking for a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Sometimes having an abundance of options can make the search that much more difficult. Here are some places to look.

Friends and family. If you’re comfortable doing so, start by asking friends and family for recommendations. Just remember that attorneys specialize in practice areas, like doctors. So if a friend recommends their estate lawyer, that lawyer likely won’t have experience in criminal defense, but they might know someone who does, such as a former law school classmate.

Legal websites and bar associations. Websites like this one ( provide information on legal issues, as well as tools to help you find a good lawyer by practice area, location, and even language. You can also look on websites for a local or state defense bar, such as [Your State’s] Criminal Defense Bar. These organizations usually have attorney lists.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Once you have a few names and numbers, start making phone calls. Most criminal defense attorneys offer prospective clients a free initial consultation. Try to do this consultation in person or over video conferencing. Taking advantage of this opportunity to meet the attorney and get some of your questions answered doesn’t obligate you to hire the attorney. But an in-person consult will often give you a good idea of whether you can work with a particular attorney or firm.

You should come to your consultation prepared—bring all your case-related paperwork and a list of the questions you want to ask. While there’s no surefire way of picking the best criminal defense attorney, here are some questions to help inform your decision.

1. What is the attorney’s area of practice?

Ask how much of the attorney’s practice is devoted to criminal defense. Some attorneys will occasionally take a criminal case, while others do all or almost all criminal defense. An attorney who focuses on criminal defense is more likely to be up to date on criminal law and familiar with how things run in criminal courts.

Within criminal law, there’s also a difference between state and federal cases. The two court systems follow different laws and procedures. It’s a good idea to ask whether an attorney you’re thinking of hiring has experience in the court system where you’ve been charged.

2. What experience does the attorney have in defending criminal cases?

The number of years an attorney has been practicing criminal defense is an important consideration. But keep in mind that lots of experience doesn’t always equate to quality representation.

Ask how much experience the attorney has defending against the kind of charge you’re facing, such as DUI, theft, or assault. Criminal defense attorneys often have niche areas that they focus on. For example, many criminal lawyers do primarily DUI cases. And there are other attorneys who concentrate on more serious felony charges, like homicide. Chances are you’re going to want to go with an attorney who is familiar with the type of case you have.

3. Does the criminal defense lawyer practice in the local area?

See if the attorney is familiar with the court where your case will be heard. An attorney who regularly practices in a certain city or county is more likely to know the prosecutors and judges and their tendencies.

If you live in a rural or suburban area, getting a “big-city” lawyer might sound good, but it won’t always be your best bet. That attorney likely won’t know any of the key players involved. Knowing the prosecutor, for instance, can make plea negotiations easier and quicker (costing less in hourly fees and travel costs). And knowing how judges have ruled on particular issues can be useful in determining defense strategies.

4. How is the attorney paid?

To avoid disputes in the future, it’s important to know ahead of time how much you’ll be paying for your case. Typically, attorneys either charge an hourly or flat rate. An attorney who charges an hourly rate bills for the actual time spent working on the case. With flat-rate fees—which are perhaps more common in criminal cases—you pay a set amount for your case or for certain stages of your case.

For example, a lawyer might charge $3,500 to handle a DUI case, regardless of how many hours of work it takes. But you should always ask what the flat fee covers. Sometimes attorneys do a pretrial flat fee but there’s an additional fee if the case goes to trial. It’s also a good plan to ask about whether the attorney anticipates any other costs, such as expert witnesses or investigations.

5. Which lawyer will be handling your case?

When you hire an attorney who’s a solo practitioner, you can be fairly certain about who will be working on your case. But if you hire a law firm with multiple attorneys, you’ll probably want to ask who will be responsible for your case and coming to court with you.

Clients are sometimes dissatisfied when they think they’re hiring one lawyer—the lawyer they speak to when hiring the firm—but another attorney from the firm ends up being in charge of the case.

Hiring the Best Criminal Defense Attorney for You

Considering all this information and your communications with prospective attorneys, don’t forget to ask yourself if you’re comfortable with the attorney. If you can’t talk or ask questions freely, think about how you will feel in the courtroom side by side with this person. You want a lawyer who you trust and who will be a partner in your case. While you can typically change privately retained attorneys, this decision can be costly, and if you decide this late in the game, there’s a chance the judge won’t allow it.

If you can’t afford to hire an attorney, you can ask the court to appoint counsel. You’ll need to fill out financial forms and affidavits to prove you are financially unable to hire an attorney. Self-representation can be an option but usually isn’t the best.

Selecting a Criminal Defense Attorney

Tips for finding, choosing, and hiring the best criminal defense attorney for your case, including questions to ask in search of a good criminal defense lawyer.

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