I’ve been asked to write about how to choose a criminal-defense lawyer.
Disclaimer: What I write here, I write not with the intention of making myself more presentable to clients, but only of telling the truth, revealing a bit of myself, and maybe entertaining or educating. Some of my posts have probably scared off potential clients—not everybody wants to hire the monkey waving around a cocked .45 (as a friendly judge described me recently). I haven’t written the “how to choose a criminal-defense lawyer” post because it is usually a thinly-veiled “why you should hire me” post.
I’ll avoid that trap, but the fact is that I like getting hired, for three reasons: it’s fun defending people; it’s how I feed my family and my habits; and it’s how I make others’ lives better. I believe I’ve developed excellent ways of treating and helping people.
There are things that we do because we are forced to by circumstances, and there are things that we do because they are right. Those practices that we adopt because they are right, we presumably think are in our clients’ best interests. For example, if I think it is in the client’s best interests for a lawyer to wear purple socks, I am going to wear purple socks, and I am going to recommend that other clients seek out lawyers who wear purple socks. If wearing purple socks were the Right Way to Practice Law (RWTPL), I’d be doing potential clients a disservice by not informing them of my opinion.
My practice is intentionally very low-volume because I think it’s in the client’s best interests to have a lawyer who has few enough cases that he can spend as much time as the client’s case demands. So naturally I think that a client should seek out a lawyer with a low-volume practice. This is the RWTPL.
Similarly, I answer my own telephones when I can and return calls promptly when I can’t because communication is the most important thing to a criminal-defense lawyer. So I have a strong preference for lawyers who can be easily reached by clients, and would recommend that this be a criterion heavily weighted in choosing a lawyer. This is also the RWTPL.
I was never a prosecutor, but I know some former prosecutors who are great criminal-defense lawyers—not because they are former prosecutors but despite it. Criminal defense takes heart, and many who have fought to put people in jail don’t have their hearts in fighting to keep them out. (Not all lawyers who haven’t fought to put people in jail have the heart for criminal defense either.) I would call prosecutorial experience a neutral-to-weak-negative factor in choosing a defender: if I had to choose between two lawyers, and all I knew about two candidates was that one had been a defender for a decade and the other had been a prosecutor for five years and a defender for five, I would choose the former. But if that were all I knew about the two candidates, I wouldn’t have done a very good job in researching my potential lawyers.
So how should you choose a criminal-defense lawyer?
Get as many names of possible choices as you can. Talk to friends, family, other lawyers.
Google them. You may be able to shorten the list.
Try to talk to as many of the survivors as you can stand to on the phone. How easy they are to reach now is a gauge of how easy they will be to reach when you’re in the middle of litigation and you’ve suddenly realized that there is a witness who can clear your name. It’s an imperfect indicator—I return calls much, much, much less quickly when I’m in trial than when I’m not—but nothing is perfect.
Make a smaller list, based on your phone calls, of people you want to meet with. Make appointments with as many as you can find time for.
Then meet with them. See how interested they seem in you as a human being, and in your story. A lawyer who spends a half-hour consultation talking about how great he is (or worse, how lousy his colleagues are) isn’t communicating. Do you feel like you’ve been heard? You probably have, and that’s a good start for any relationship. Criminal defense requires trust; trust requires communication; communication requires listening. How lawyers communicate with you is a gauge of how they will communicate with the jury, which is, at the end of the day, what will matter most.
Here’s an excellent question one potential client asked me recently: “if you had this problem, who would you hire?” (Even if I thought I was the best guy for the particular job, I couldn’t say, “me!” because only a fool would represent himself.)
When you’re looking for a criminal-defense lawyer, you’re probably in extremis. It might help to take along a trusted loved one when you meet with your prospective lawyers. You can’t talk about the facts of your case around anyone but the lawyer, but it can help to have someone a little more objective help you judge the trustworthiness of the lawyers you’re talking to.
So that’s how you choose a criminal-defense lawyer: learn as much as you can about as many lawyers as you can stand to, and pick the one you trust.
Pretty simple, eh?