How to Choose a Criminal-Defense Lawyer


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?


0 responses to “How to Choose a Criminal-Defense Lawyer”

  1. Wow. What a great post! This is exactly what I’ve told people who ask me (which is how I know it’s a great post), only more succinctly! 😉

    Seriously, I follow these same rules myself, plus one more. I think if you need a criminal defense attorney, you should hire one: don’t hire a personal injury lawyer to handle a criminal defense case. If you had kidney stones, you wouldn’t go to a brain surgeon. If you had a stroke, you wouldn’t seek out an obstetrician.

    Admittedly, that analogy may not be perfect and this last rule has been hard to justify sometimes as the flow of potential clients spikes and dips. I’ve considered adding a second practice area.

    But so far, your rules, plus the “one practice area” rule are what I’ve followed.

  2. Mark:

    My chief problem with your criterion, and don’t get me wrong it is a great post, is that you are appealing to that small sliver of criminally charged public who can actually afford the luxury of shopping for top shelf lawyers (and i am obviously lumping you in to that group). Ninety-five percent (or more) of the criminally charged public will never be able to afford lawyers of your caliber (unless they hit the lotto that morning). What I wish you had written is how to select a lawyer who is at the “price point” you were several years ago.

    – karl

  3. I agree with your analysis, and do the same. I answer every call I can immediately, except when in court or meeting with a client – in person or on the phone. Then I try to call people back ASAP, though every week there seem to be a few that slip through the cracks (new callers) since I feel that existing clients, and callers on existing clients’ cases, come first.

    I wrote a blog article “How to Know > Do You Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?” at: http://wp.me/pAFjr-26 and a similar FAQ page on my site: http://www.liberty-lawyer.com/faq/doineeddefenselawyer.html

    I did because this is one of the most frequently asked questions I hear. Probably a quarter of the people I talk to get information from me that would help them accomplish their goals without hiring a lawyer like me (because of their situation or they already have a good lawyer). Other times callers don’t seem to really understand that the felony charge they are facing is worth more than their car payments over the next few years. The most important thing to consider when hiring a particular lawyer may be: Does the lawyer seem to put my interest ahead of his or her own? Yes, we do need to be aggressive on behalf of our clients at times, but a client is not well served at all if their lawyer is aggressive towards them!

  4. Mark I think you gave great advice on how to choose a criminal defnese lawyer. I think when people are faced with a charge and have to find an attorney they get fluster and dont think things through … even when it only takes a few simple steps.

    I am an aspiring criminal defense law student and would give this advice to people as you did!

  5. I think another consideration requires the prospective client to take a hard look at his or her situation. It is hard to demand that an attorney work miracles when you are very, very guilty. This is another form of the price-point argument.

    While EVERY defendant deserves the best representation possible, the meaning of representation is not “to get you off scott-free.” It does meant that I, as an attorney, will look under every rock (to the extent possible given the price-point), will ensure that the prosecution acts honestly and is forced to prove its case will real evidence (long story here), and that I will explain the process to the client in a way that she or he fully understands and so forth…

    What we attorneys do not do on any regular basis is disabuse the client of her or his unreasonable expectations – one client demanded that I force the prosecutor to believe my client’s description of events – even though that description was completely incongruent with reality. I explained that during the pre-trial process, discussions were discussions and the only way I could “force” (the actual word used) the prosecutor to “believe” was to take the case to trial….

    Lastly, we might also suggest what a colleague of mine used to say: “If you want the Johnny Cochran defense, you have to pay the Johnny Cochran price.”

    • Mr. F.,
      Just curious, prior to taking cases, do you investigate client’s claims of innocence and charge one rate for the ones that are and another rate for the very, very guilty? If yes, do you employee and or contract P.I’s. to come to the conclusions for you?

      Regarding the definition of (representation) you are sort of right. In reality, a CDL doesn’t represent a client in a criminal matter, he / she more or less (works) “for” a client. A CDL being the merchant and the client being the customer with innocence and or guilt being the CDL’s JOB to investigate & build an appropriate defense based on the findings. They don’t teach any of this, I’m sure, but it’s a business, (small or large) doesn’t matter for the reputation one obtains is directly related to how one conducts it. Thus, if you only defend based on the rate you dictate, 10 to 20 years later you could be the focus of a book, project or movie when the innocent emerge. Good luck with that. Thanks.

      • LOL Mr. G! Your point is well taken.

        That being said, there are very few times when 2 + 2 = 15. It is when faced with massive impossibilities that I usually assume my client is likely lying. My job as a defense attorney is to give the best possible defense. If I take everything my client offers as absolute truth, I do him or her a massive disservice because I cannot then explain reality.

        We have a duty to investigate the facts, to understand what happened, and to explain to our client that, sometimes, their dishonest ways will not get them past the judge. What kind of advocate can we be when we accept as truth, things that are patently false (i.e. “the sky is chartreuse”)? We will lose the professional respect of the judges, the prosecutors and the jury. That can never serve justice.

        Attorneys are not puppets to be controlled by a client. If one truly believes that we are limited to accepting the facts as stated by the client without a judicious amount of speculation, questioning and confirmation, then we are idiots and our clients are fools.

  6. Mr. B.,
    Sir, would it be wise for the accused that is 100% Not Guilty & can afford one, to also consider asking the attorney about his/her record regarding “Tapping Out” (plea bargaining)? And do they have a private investigator on the defense team?

    As an attorney you & your brethren probably don’t see the relevance of the question either due to it never coming up in the past or as seeing the answer as a possibility of not being hired should it reveal a pattern and or an inability to prove actual innocence.

    In 1984, the term “Sale-Out” lawyer used to be a reference to court appointed lawyers due to their love affair with ADA’s. Which is exactly why I begged my family to hire an attorney, knowing good & well that we were too poor to. And as you know, poor people don’t consider any of your and the add-ons criteria when trying to assist a family member. Luckily a few neighbors helped my mom hire one for $800. cash, no questions asked on either side. Sadly, on the first and only day of trial he “Tapped Out” during lunch recess. $800. in return for one 15 minute jail visit, one 2 minute courtroom holding tank visit prior to voir dire, one 2 minute visit (handing me my suit & tie), 45 minutes of sitting next to me and 5 subsequent 1 minute holding tank drop in to tell me in code that he was afraid and wanted to go home.

    Not one minute spent on actually defending and or gathering evidence. Case file shows not one single motion he filed (7) has the judge’s signature and or approval on the Order Thus, Motion for Discovery being typed up with a Cert. Of Service with a blank Order form, equates to the 14 Amendment being a joke played on the poor. In 98, I rec. a letter of recommendation for a full pardon based on actual innocence from him saying, “based on the facts of the case”, after I mailed him copies of my mug-shot, HPD Incident Report & case file. His history shows he’s never tried a case before a jury “all the way” prior to and afterwards. With that info. I am able to say that the term “Sale-Out” isn’t just for court appointed lawyers & a “Tapping-Out” record should be considered when shopping.

    And of course, IMO, if one is 100% Not Guilty and poor, go with court appointed every time. But if you are wealthy and the attorney doesn’t have any “take it all the way” experience and a P.I. on retainer or in house, (keep shopping) because there won’t be any so-called looking under rocks, I promise you, it aint happening.
    Thank you sir.

    The Griffith Files – 1984 & Beyond
    PROJECT: Not Guilty

    The Griffith Files – 1984 & Beyond
    PROJECT: Not Guilty

    • A lawyer should be able to talk comfortably about the numbers of cases he tries, pleads, and gets dismissed, but those numbers don’t mean much without context.

      Every lawyer has clients who rationally decide that it’s in their best interest to plead guilty. Some of those clients are factually guilty; some are factually innocent and pragmatic.

      If a lawyer gets 75% of his cases dismissed and pleads 20% of them, is she a better lawyer for a particular case than the lawyer who gets 20% of his cases dismissed and pleads 80% of them? Not necessarily—every case is different, and there might be something about the 80% pleader that makes him better for a particular case than the 20% pleader. But the client doesn’t know that at the time of making the decision, and so might be well advised to play the percentages and hire the lawyer on the hot streak.

  7. I think another consideration requires the prospective client to take a hard look at his or her situation. It is hard to demand that an attorney work miracles when you are very, very guilty. This is another form of the price-point argument.

    Mickey, to the extent that you are suggesting that potential clients should auto-triage and spend less money if they are “very, very guilty,” I disagree strongly. Potential clients generally have no idea how deep their legal problems are, and the depth of their legal problems rarely correlates to how factually guilty they are.

    • Not at all. No self-triage. I agree with you totally there. What I mean to say is that when one is actually guilty (as in he tells his lawyer that he is guilty), one should not expect that an attorney (no matter how excellent she might be, or how much money you pay) will be able to “get them out of it.” There seems to be a mindset that good attorneys can “get you off” no matter what the facts or circumstances are.

      I tend to spend a good deal of time counseling clients, explaining to them exactly what they are facing in terms of process, procedure and law (including penalties and punishments). Sometimes, all I can really offer them is that explanation and to work diligently on sentencing and a favorable PSI in order to limit their exposure to the system as much as possible.

      Still, a client must be realistic in what they expect because every attorney, no matter how small her fees, needs to feed her family.

  8. Good article. More realistic than mere (where your attorney went to school). The mind set is very important. The prosecutors theory of avoidance is Good. I did over 25 years in fl. dept of corr. and every officer who stuck it out to make rank had to show an ability to commit immoral acts in order to make rank. Label me a felon , and I label you ex-prosecutor carrying the trait. No offence but I am kinda glad I didn’t pursue a justice system line of work, which means I can still make it to heaven and not having to sell may soul for cash using people as pawns in a treacherous game with dirty secrets. I know the inside scoop and so do you. You barely scratched the surface. AND HE SAID :”WOE TO YOU ALSO,YE LAWYERS!……” (READ IT). KJV 11:46. Im not that religious…till im in cuffs. Good article. Respectfully.

  9. Hi, great post. I had hired a criminal lawyer and she was nice in the beginning but she quit, which is illegal. A friend of mine recommended me a lawyer who he says is good and I met with the lawyer and I couldn’t pan out whether he is good for my husband or not. All lawyers seem nice and what not in the beginning, then after they are retained, they act completely different. The lawyer made an attempt to go see my husband but he wasn’t back from court yet and wants a payment made if he is going back there to see my husband, he gave me an attitude saying good luck and hung up the phone on me after I told the lawyer that my husband doesn’t want to hire anyone without speaking to him first without any money being put down before my husband even speaks to them. My friend said he’s a good lawyer and that’s he is just not an ordinary lawyer. He also didn’t seem to say much about the information I gave him about the case and said he needs to see documents before he can tell me anything, so my feeling is that he is just interested in money or forcing me to hire him but then again the first lawyer I hired acted like she wasn’t interested in the money and ended up quitting. Could you guide me in the right direction?

    • Hi, great post. I had hired a criminal lawyer and she was nice in the beginning but she quit, which is illegal.

      There’s nothing illegal about a lawyer quitting. If she has appeared on the case, the judge must approve her withdrawal, and she may owe you money back.

      A friend of mine recommended me a lawyer who he says is good and I met with the lawyer and I couldn’t pan out whether he is good for my husband or not.

      No, you’re probably going to have to trust your gut.

      All lawyers seem nice and what not in the beginning, then after they are retained, they act completely different.

      Not all lawyers, surely.

      The lawyer made an attempt to go see my husband but he wasn’t back from court yet and wants a payment made if he is going back there to see my husband,

      It was nice of him to try without getting paid, but it’s entirely reasonable for a lawyer not to go visit a potential client in jail without being paid for his time.

      he gave me an attitude saying good luck and hung up the phone on me after I told the lawyer that my husband doesn’t want to hire anyone without speaking to him first without any money being put down before my husband even speaks to them.

      It sounds like you’re treating this as a negotiation. It’s not a negotiation. He’s got terms; you can accept them or not, but trying to change them is a waste of your time and his. I’m with him. I don’t think a potential client is serious if he’s not willing to pay for my time to go see him, and I don’t want to waste my time on potential clients who aren’t serious.

      My friend said he’s a good lawyer and that’s he is just not an ordinary lawyer.

      That sounds like a good recommendation.

      He also didn’t seem to say much about the information I gave him about the case and said he needs to see documents before he can tell me anything, so my feeling is that he is just interested in money or forcing me to hire him but then again the first lawyer I hired acted like she wasn’t interested in the money and ended up quitting. Could you guide me in the right direction?

      I recommend that you seek the assistance of some trusted friend or family member in making this decision, because you’ve got this part exactly backwards. The lawyer who is just interested in money will tell you what you want to hear to get your money, even if it isn’t true. The truthful lawyer will tell you that he can’t base a prediction on your account of facts. The lawyer who is just interested in money will go down to the jail for free and tell your husband what he wants to hear, even if it isn’t true.
      This guy sounds like my kind of lawyer.

  10. Thank you for your reply I appreciate it. Btw, there was never a withdrawal from a judge. The lawyer just quit. Is it ok that I ask the lawyer to help me get my money back from that lawyer while the lawyer is also working on my husbands case?

  11. I liked your idea to take a loved one with you when you look for a criminal defense lawyer. It makes sense that having a second opinion could save you from choosing a lawyer that’s not as good as another one. My brother needs to hire a criminal defense attorney, so I will make sure to suggest he takes someone with him.

  12. I love this method you suggest of slowly narrowing down options until you find the one that fits you, from asking around to Googling to calling them and so on. This is a great way to make baby steps in what can be a very daunting decision. Also, I totally agree with bringing someone you trust along when making these decisions. They can give you honest and level-headed opinions and might notice something you don't.

  13. I have a family member who has recently found themselves in some legal trouble, so I appreciate these tips on how to find the best criminal lawyer. I like the tip you give of looking for someone who is very personable and not too hard to get ahold of. I imagine that it would also be wise to look for someone who will sit you down for an initial consultation to explain the nuts and bolts of the legal process so that you know what to expect.

  14. I agree that you want to get a lot of names when you are looking for a defense lawyer. I would imagine that finding as many names as possible would help you find the right attorney for you. My sister needs a criminal defense lawyer so she'll have to find a lot of names before she chooses any one person.

  15. It is good to know that one should get as many names of possible choices as they can when trying to find a criminal lawyer. I also like what was said about talking to friends, family, and other lawyers about their thoughts. It would be best to hire an attorney who has worked with cases similar to yours before and found success.

  16. I like that you encourage people to have a face-to-face sit down with any lawyer that they’re thinking of hiring. However, this is especially important when choosing a criminal defense attorney. After all, if you need to hire a criminal defense attorney for any reason, you’ll want to hear how they plan to defend you in person.