What to Look for in a Private Criminal Defense Attorney

To help choose right lawyer for your criminal case, look for some or most of these characteristics.

By , UCLA Law School Professor

If you're facing criminal charges, the attorney you're looking for probably won't be the same person who drafted your will or helped you buy a house. Nor will it be the same attorney whom your aunt used when she was involved in a car accident. These all were civil attorneys, whereas you'll want to find someone who specializes in criminal law and is a good fit for you and your particular case. Below we review some important factors to consider when hiring a criminal defense lawyer.

Now, this is not to say an attorney can't practice in both areas (civil and criminal law), and some do. If that's the case in your area, you'll still want to make sure the attorney you hire is a good fit for your case.

Civil vs. Criminal Attorneys

Private criminal defense lawyers tend to practice either on their own or in small partnerships, and in a specific geographical setting. By contrast, attorneys who handle civil cases tend to congregate in large corporate law firms with branch offices in many cities.

While personality differences between civil and criminal attorneys may account for some of the variance, the biggest factor is the differing nature of the work.

  • Big-firm civil attorneys tend to represent companies that do business all over the country or the world. Criminal defense lawyers represent individuals whose problems are usually quite local.
  • Companies represented by big-firm civil lawyers have a continual need for legal advice and representation. Individual criminal defendants tend to be one-shot players with nonrecurring or sporadic legal needs.

The typical private defense attorney has had several years of experience working for the government before going into private practice, either as a prosecutor (often, a district attorney or city attorney) or as a public defender.

Advantages of Hiring a Local Attorney

A defendant should try to hire an attorney with experience in the courthouse where the defendant's case is pending. Though the same laws may be in effect throughout a state, procedures vary from one courthouse to another. For example, the D.A. in one county may have a no-plea-bargaining policy with respect to a certain offense, while the D.A. in a neighboring county may have no such policy. Or, defense attorneys in one county may know which prosecutors are more likely to plead right before trial, as against those who will negotiate in advance. Local attorneys also know the police officers and how they perform in court before juries. Defendants should prefer attorneys who have experience with local procedures and personnel.

Experience With the Crimes Charged

A defendant should also try to find an attorney who has represented defendants charged with the same or very similar offenses. Modern criminal law is so complex that many lawyers specialize in particular types of offenses. For example, one may specialize in impaired driving, another in drug offenses, and another in white-collar crimes (generally referring to nonviolent, money-related crimes, such as tax fraud or embezzlement).

It is perfectly appropriate for a defendant to inquire during the initial consultation about the attorney's experience. A defendant should not hire a lawyer who refuses to specifically discuss her experience or gives vague, unrevealing answers.

Example: Zach Michaels is charged with driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Zach might ask the lawyer who he's thinking of retaining questions such as:

  • "Have you represented people who have been charged with a DUI?"
  • "What percentage of your practice involves representing people charged with DUI?"
  • "Are you certified as a specialist in DUI cases?" (Some states allow attorneys to qualify as specialists in specific areas of practice; others do not.)
  • "What percentage of your practice involves appearing in the court that my case will be assigned to?"

Because most private lawyers have years of criminal law experience either as a prosecutor or as a P.D. before going into private practice, defendants should not have to sacrifice quality to find attorneys who have local experience with their types of cases.

Finding a Lawyer Who's a Good Fit

A defendant's lawyer speaks for the defendant. No matter how highly recommended a lawyer may be, it is also important that the lawyer be someone with whom the defendant is personally comfortable. The best attorney-client relationships are those in which clients are full partners in the decision-making process, and defendants should try to hire lawyers who see them as partners, not as case files.

Thus, defendants should ask themselves questions such as these when considering whether to hire a particular lawyer:

  • "Does the attorney seem to be someone I can work with and talk openly to?"
  • "Does the attorney explain things in a way that I can understand?"
  • "Does the lawyer show personal concern and a genuine desire to want to help?"
  • "Do the lawyer's concerns extend to my overall personal situation, rather than just the crime with which I'm charged?"
  • "Does the lawyer appear to be a person who will engender trust in prosecutors, judges, and, if necessary, jurors?"

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

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