Finding a Private Criminal Defense Attorney

Tips on how to find the right lawyer to handle your criminal case.

Many defendants facing criminal charges are not in custody at the time they seek to hire an attorney. Either the police issue them a citation and a court date and never take them to jail, or they bail out of jail on their own, without first hiring an attorney.

Finding a Lawyer When You're in Jail

It may be difficult to find and hire a competent lawyer while in jail. The atmosphere is usually psychologically oppressive, a defendant can’t comparison-shop, and the police and other defendants are notoriously poor judges of lawyers’ competence.   There's a monetary constraint, too: Criminal defense lawyers often want the bulk of their money up front, which means that you will have to come up with some cash in fairly short order. Because jailed defendants usually have no money, they have to find family members or friends who will put up the money.

If an arrested suspect has previously been satisfactorily represented by a criminal defense lawyer, that is usually the lawyer whom the suspect should call.  But how should other arrested suspects proceed? Probably the most fruitful approach is to get a referral from one or more of the following sources:

Civil practitioners. Defendants who know an attorney in civil practice can ask that attorney to recommend a criminal defense lawyer. (Some civil practitioners, of course, are also competent to represent clients in criminal matters, at least for the limited purpose of arranging for release from jail following an arrest.)

Family members or friends.  These people  may either know of a criminal defense lawyer or at least have the time to pursue additional reference sources, such as family clergy, doctors, or other professionals.

Bail bond sellers.    Bondsmen are usually in regular contact with private defense lawyers.

Finding a Lawyer When You're Not in Custody

Like defendants who are in custody, defendants who are not in jail can seek referrals from civil lawyers, friends and relatives, and bail bond sellers. However, nonjailed defendants have additional options. The additional sources include:

A local bar association’s lawyer referral panel. Attorneys are usually recommended according to their experience and the type and seriousness of a criminal charge.

Nolo's Criminal Defense Lawyer Directory. We have a free and easy to use online directory of lawyers, organized by location and area of expertise. This website allows you to ask questions of local criminal defense attorneys in your area. You're under no obligation to hire the lawyer with whom you correspond, and you may learn enough to decide to interview that lawyer.

Martindale-Hubbell. Martindale-Hubbell publications identify lawyers according to their specialties in specific geographic areas, and even rate the lawyers for competency. Defendants can either try to find attorneys by looking in Martindale-Hubbell, or check references on attorneys who have been recommended to them. All law libraries have Martindale-Hubbell books; many general public libraries have them as well. Defendants who have access to the Internet will also find Martindale-Hubbell online.

Courthouse visits. Defendants can visit a local courthouse and sit through a few criminal hearings. If a particular lawyer impresses a defendant, the defendant can ask for that lawyer’s card (after the hearing has concluded) and then call for an appointment.

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

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