Being in private practice, I encounter a number of people who are looking for a criminal defense attorney. Many times, the need is urgent because someone in their family was just arrested, or they hear that there is a warrant out for their arrest. In those circumstances, there can be almost a panic to hire a lawyer. So how do you do it?
There are several things to look at. First, and this may seem obvious but it is surprising how many times people miss it, make sure that the lawyer you are talking with handles criminal cases. Just because some attorney handled your divorce or the closing on your house does not mean that lawyer would do well in a criminal case. Nevertheless, one of the best places to start is with lawyers that you may know. Ask them who they would hire for the type of case.
This part is also important. Not all criminal defense lawyers handle all criminal cases. Federal law, for example, is generally dramatically different from state law. Make sure the lawyer can handle your type of case.
If you do not know a lawyer, check out some attorney groups focusing on criminal defense. NACDL (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers), for example, has a membership directory. Many states have their own state organization. (Alaska's is the Alaska Academy of Trial Lawyers.) A google search would easily find those groups. Use their membership directory. Membership in such an organization, while certainly not necessary to practice, shows that the lawyer at least has enough interest and focus in the area to spend money to be a part of the organization.
Start calling people that come up in the member search. Ask if they handle these types of cases and if they can handle your case. There may be legitimate reasons they cannot. The lawyer may not have time right then or there may be a conflict of interest. Make an appointment and go visit the potential lawyer.
Should you find out the fee before you go to see the lawyer? That depends. If you are pressed for time or you know that you are going to hire a particular lawyer, it is a good idea. On the other hand, if you have some time, I would recommend seeing several lawyers. Law is an art, not a science, and there are several different ways to approach the same problem. You should go with a lawyer you are comfortable with. To know who that is, you should visit a few. You should also hire a lawyer whose direction or outlook is the same as yours. Stay away from lawyers that try to push you into a particular choice of action, such as pleading or trial, without knowing a great deal about the case.
Also stay away from lawyers that promise really good results. Good results can happen, but even the best lawyers do not always get the results they want. The reality is there are three types of cases: cases easily won (acquittal), cases easily lost (conviction), and cases in the middle. Every client wants to think that their case can be easily won. That is not the case. Good lawyers will have higher winning percentages, all things being equal, of the cases in the middle. Cases easily lost are cases in which the evidence is rather strong and you might want to really consider a plea bargain. Some lawyers are better at trial than at negotiations. If you are not familiar with the evidence that will be presented against you, you should be prepared for all possibilities. Sometimes it is better to hire a lawyer who can negotiate a good deal for you rather than a fire-breathing trial monster. If the evidence is overwhelming, you may want someone who can minimize potential jail or prison time. A trial monster may not be such a person. On the other hand, you may decide that you are going to trial no matter what. In such a case, get the trial monster.
This is one reason why asking, "What is your record?" is not really helpful. What do you mean by 'winning'? Straight acquittal? Does not always happen. Further, the less serious the charge, the greater chance at an acquittal. There are several reasons for this, but a lawyer with a high winning percentage handling misdemeanors may not be as good as a lawyer with a low winning percentage in homicides.
So how to lawyers charge? Depends upon the case. Lawyers generally charge either a flat fee or an hourly rate, depending on a number of factors. For smaller cases, DUIs, misdemeanors, maybe low level felonies, it is quite common for a lawyer to charge a flat fee. There are many stages of a criminal prosecution. Your lawyer should explain the general procedure for your jurisdiction. If she charges a flat fee, make sure you understand what that covers. Does it only cover initial proceedings or does it go all the way through trial? If it goes through trial, would you get a refund if it settles? The answers may not always be so clear. I know of an attorney who charges a certain fee for a DUI. Whether there is a trial or not, that is the fee. On one hand, it can be nice to know that you won't have to pay extra money for a trial if you want it. On the other hand, maybe you don't want to pay for a service that you don't use.
Hourly rates are generally used for more complicated or expensive cases. In these cases, money is deposited into a special bank account lawyers keep called a trust account. The rules governing trust accounts are very specific and strict. There are few ways to lose your license to practice law as fast as taking money from a trust account without proper authorization. The lawyer keeps track of his time and at agreed upon intervals (once or twice a month), notifies you of the time he spent and what he will be withdrawing from the trust account.
Expenses for cases are also paid by the client. Common expenses include experts, investigators, transcripts, paralegal work, travel, and copying charges. Your lawyer should explain how those expenses are tracked and how you are to pay for them. Be wary of lawyers that try to push a great deal of expenses without explaining them to you. But also be careful of lawyers that do not spend money that needs to be spent, such as an investigator. If you cannot afford an expert or an investigator, you should consider another attorney or appointed counsel. Hiring an attorney without providing funds for such is going into a fight with one hand tied behind your back. It is not smart.
If you do have some time and have been able to talk with several lawyers, you will most likely wind up with more than one lawyer you are considering. If that is the case, go with the lawyer that you felt the best about. You (or a family member or a friend) are about to go through a pretty traumatic and rough experience. While the tips I've given above will help you decide who is qualified, there is realistically no way I can tell you who you would be best hiring. You would do well to go through this experience with someone you get along with.
I hope this helps. If you have any questions about what I have written, feel free to email me. Please do not, though, email to ask about a particular attorney.