Now let's look at the various kinds of lawyers and lawyer services that are available.
Most lawyers in private practice are not adequately equipped to help you mount a traffic court defense. Like physicians, most lawyers specialize. Just as you wouldn't want a foot doctor operating on your eye, you don't want a divorce lawyer defending you in a traffic or criminal case. Unfortunately, relatively few lawyers specialize in traffic ticket defense. But in every metropolitan area, a number of attorneys will routinely handle more serious vehicle code violations, such as drunk driving. These people are usually competent to advise you on how to defend yourself against garden-variety tickets. To find one of these traffic court experts, use the same sorts of commonsense techniques you use to find quality services in other fields. Ask around among lawyers, legal secretaries, or business associates for a recommendation of a traffic court pro.
Nolo's Lawyer Directory can help you find a lawyer. Nolo offers a unique lawyer directory that provides a comprehensive profile for each attorney with information that will help you select the right attorney. The profiles tell you about the lawyer's experience, education, and fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law. You can find Nolo's Lawyer Directory at www.nolo.com/lawyers/.
Once you have the name of a lawyer or, preferably, several lawyers who handle traffic or criminal cases, it often makes sense to hire one for an initial consultation for an agreed-in- advance fee. Some lawyers will briefly discuss your case for free, or charge you $75 or $100 for half an hour. For a more detailed, hour-long discussion of the facts of a serious case and presentation of the lawyer's suggestions, payment of $150 to $200 is fair. A consultation should allow you to learn important information about your case while you evaluate whether it makes sense to work with the particular lawyer. In some areas you can attempt to do the same thing by looking for a lawyer who will provide a free initial consultation, but too often you'll end up with a bottom-of-the-barrel lawyer who doesn't have enough paying clients.
Group Legal Practices and Prepaid Legal Services
A growing number of people join prepaid legal plans, which typically charge between $80 and $250 per year. Many groups, including unions, employers, alumni associations, and consumer action groups, are offering plans to their members under which they can get legal assistance for rates that are substantially lower than most private practitioners. Some of these plans are good, some mediocre, and a few are worthless. When it comes to traffic court cases, your first step is to see whether your plan provides coverage for your type of violation or one or more free consultations for any legal problem. Then, if you are eligible for help, you should be sure you are referred to an attorney with real expertise in handling traffic or criminal cases.
If you cannot afford to hire an attorney and you face the possibility of jail time, you have the right to request help from a court-appointed attorney. Since most vehicle code violations do not result in jail time, you are not likely to get a court-appointed attorney unless you face reckless driving, drunken driving, or other very serious charges, which are not covered in this book.
The legal determination of whether or not you can afford a lawyer depends upon the requirements specified by the particular state or county. A judge may appoint a public defender or private lawyer to represent you under the following circumstances:
- You have a relatively low-paying job or are unemployed.
- Your family is living on a tight budget.
- You do not have a savings account large enough to pay a lawyer.