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.
Here are few additional tips for finding and working with a lawyer.
Local is best. It's usually best to hire a lawyer who routinely works in the court where your case will be handled. That's because a local lawyer will know the idiosyncrasies of the judges and prosecutors who will handle your case. Just being able to chat with these folks on a first-name basis can be a huge help.
Make it clear from the beginning that you want to participate in your defense. Some lawyers are pleased to explain all the legal aspects of your case and involve you in making good strategic decisions. Others prefer an "I'm the expert, you're the novice” approach, under which they expect you to listen and follow their advice. Especially if you are handling some or all of your own case, this second approach clearly won't work, meaning you'll need to find someone else.
Beware of referral panels of local bar associations. Lawyers listed by referral panels are not screened. While you could get an excellent lawyer this way, you may well end up paying to educate a lawyer who doesn't know as much as you'll learn in this book.
Beware of reduced fee legal plans. Some low-end prepaid legal plans purport to give members legal services at a reduced cost. There are two problems with this. First, you have to go to a lawyer on the plan's local panel who may know little about traffic court. Second, the fee discount is often an illusion. Often, with a couple of phone calls you could negotiate the same fee with a real expert. The worst prepaid legal services plans provide for a free half-hour consultation with a lawyer, but little more. After that one meeting, you pay the lawyer by the hour, either at a standard or "reduced” fee. Since the plan reimburses the lawyer almost nothing for your consultation, the lawyer is highly motivated to talk you into buying expensive services you may not need.
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.
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: