In response to my post on how to choose a criminal-defense lawyer, a couple of people asked for a similar guide for the clients who can’t afford to hire the kind of lawyer I would hire if I were in trouble. For example, “What I wish you had written is how to select a lawyer who is at the ‘price point’ you were several years ago.”
First, some people assume that criminal-defense lawyers are more expensive than they are (many people assume that criminal-defense lawyers are cheaper than they are; they think I should be cheaper by an order of magnitude; I can offer them no help). Before you assume that you can’t afford to hire the lawyer you really want, talk to him. He may even give a ballpark estimate (“at least $x”) over the telephone.
When looking for a less-expensive lawyer, you can go one of two ways: either to a lawyer of the same vintage who for some reason charges lower fees, or to a younger lawyer. I always recommend that you look for the latter—a lawyer who is in the situation I was in, say, ten years ago: with four years of criminal-defense experience behind me, but without children, big mortgages, or a steady stream of clients; competent, experienced, and well-trained (ten years ago, I was coming off a string of acquittals and five weeks at the Trial Lawyers College) but working on developing the business side of my practice. Highly determined and energetic, and with lots of time to dedicate to the few cases on my docket.
The alternative would be an older lawyer who might be charging lower fees because he doesn’t have confidence in his abilities (and so doesn’t think he’s worth more), because he has a high-volume practice or because, despite the time he has had to build a reputation, others don’t think he’s worth more. This should not inspire confidence in the potential client.
The same principles apply to hiring the less-expensive lawyer as to hiring at the expensive end of the spectrum: trust <— communication <— listening; hire the lawyer you can reach and can talk to. A younger lawyer is not going to have as much information online as an older lawyer. She ought to have a website with at least her contact information, but if she has good judgment, she won’t be shooting her mouth off in a blog, and she won’t have attracted a whole lot of attention.
The best way to find the competent young gunslinger is to ask the old one. Most experienced lawyers have younger lawyers whom they mentor and trust to refer clients to when the clients can’t afford to pay for more experience (a couple of mine: Sarah Wood, Rob Tuthill). Everyone—the client, the referring lawyer, and the younger lawyer—benefits from such an arrangement. The client gets a lawyer he can afford, mentored by a lawyer he can’t; the referring lawyer gets the satisfaction of making sure the client is taken care of, and the younger lawyer gets mentoring and a paying client.
Hiring a less-expensive lawyer is a two-part proposition. First, find the experienced lawyer whose judgment you trust, using the process I described in my last post on the subject. Then, if you can’t afford him, tell him what you can afford (if you have only a thousand bucks to spend on your aggravated robbery case, please don’t call me; I’m not referring you to anyone) and ask him for a referral.