How to Hire a Criminal Attorney
If you have been arrested for any charge, you want to find the best defense attorney to help you fight the charges. While you could start by searching online for a “defense lawyer near me,” if you don’t know what to look for, you might not find someone with the required experience and skills. I am Peter Liss, Esq., and I have over 35 years of experience helping thousands of people fight all types of criminal charges. I can help you with your case from beginning to end, but to make sure you are confident in your representation, I put together this guide on how to find a good criminal defense attorney.
What Should I Look for in a Criminal Lawyer?
If this is the first time you’ve found yourself in legal trouble, you might not know where to turn. While it’s a good idea to start by looking at reviews from past clients or ask your friends or family for recommendations, you’ll ultimately need to make the final decision yourself. Here are some tips to help you find the best lawyer for your needs:
Check Ratings, Especially on AVVO
When trying to find the right attorney for your case, check the usual rating sites, like Yelp and Google, but don’t forget to check AVVO, a top legal website that offers ratings and reviews for 95% of all American lawyers. I have 75 five-star reviews and a near-perfect rating on AVVO and 5 stars on Yelp and Google.
Also, see if the attorney has any prestigious awards or honors. For example, I have an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell, meaning my fellow lawyer have judged me to demonstrate the highest level of legal skills and standards in the field.
Find a Lawyer You Feel Comfortable With
Your initial consultation should let you evaluate your attorney’s availability, attentiveness, and dedication. See how well they listen as you explain your situation and how thoroughly they answer your questions. Spending time in their office should give you an idea of how they might defend you and let you determine how you feel around them. Are they willing to spend the time to address all of your concerns, or do they seem to be rushing you?
When working with a lawyer, you need to trust them enough to be able to be open about the details of your situation. If you can’t express yourself freely or don’t believe what they tell you, choose someone else.
Make Sure You are Comfortable with Their Rates
You must know how much a defense attorney’s services will cost before hiring them. You don’t want to end up blindsided. Just because you want the best legal representation doesn’t mean you have to pay a fortune. Attorneys can charge a wide variety of rates based on their experience, caseload, and more.
Just because a lawyer is expensive doesn’t always mean they’re the best. If you can’t afford someone’s rates, find another high-rated attorney with rates you can afford. Skilled attorneys don’t necessarily cost a fortune, but anyone reliable should be open about their fee structure.
Also, find out what payment methods they accept, especially if you can’t afford to pay with cash. My offices offer reasonable rates and accept all major credit cards.
Questions to Ask a Defense Lawyer Before You Hire Them
When hiring a criminal defense attorney, you must feel confident in their ability to handle your case —you don’t want to find yourself needing a new lawyer after your first court date. But for many people accused of a crime, knowing what to ask during an initial consultation can be hard. Ask your prospective lawyer questions like these to get a good idea of their experience and expertise.
What’s Your Background?
Be sure they cover their education, work experience, and how long they have been practicing law. You may also want to ask about volunteer work, awards, or any professional organizations they may be involved with.
As for my background, I graduated from the top-ten-ranked University of California Berkeley Law School. I have been practicing in the Vista courts for over 35 years. Over that time, I have tried and handled every type of criminal case, from DUI to Capital Murder. I teach young lawyers trial skills at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA). Before starting my private practice over 20 years ago, I was a Legal Aid lawyer and public defender for 15 years, including serving as the Assistant Supervising lawyer for the Vista office.
What Type of Cases do You Handle?
Worthwhile attorneys won’t practice divorce, personal injury, and criminal law. The criminal justice system is too complex for someone to handle all types of crimes and other legal specialties.
How Many Cases Like Mine Have You Taken?
Always ask what kinds of cases they take to verify that they handle a decent amount of cases like yours. For example, if 90% of their caseload involves DUIs, you probably don’t want to join in with the 1% of fraud charges they’ve taken. Remember that some crimes are more common than others, so if you’re fighting treason accusations, don’t be surprised if an attorney has only represented one or two other clients against the same charge.
What are the Maximum and Most Likely Sentences I Could Face?
Often people think they will be sentenced to the maximum punishment the law allows, though that is rarely the case. To help you understand the nuances of the situation, ask what you should realistically expect.
Some crimes, such as DUI and domestic violence, carry additional consequences, which lawyers can best explain, as these can sometimes be confusing. The attorney should understand the many variables influencing a case’s potential outcome and the likely range of penalties. They may also be able to tell you if those convicted of the crime can receive alternative sentencing.
Is There Anything I Should or Shouldn’t Do?
Lawyers generally don’t give legal advice online or over the phone, however some law firms have case managers that provide clients with legal advice by phone. Make sure the person you talk to is a licensed criminal defense attorney.
During your initial consultation, though, they will often be willing to advise you on what they think you should do in your situation. Sometimes they may advise you to work with the victim to make restitution. For example, if someone accused you of vandalizing their business, your attorney may suggest you voluntarily repair the damage or pay to fix it. Other times they may urge you to avoid talking to anyone, including the victim, about the case. Occasionally, you may want to start attending anger management or drug treatment programs as soon as possible.
Know what your attorney may ask of you as soon as possible so you won’t have any conflicts about these issues later on. After all, if you are unwilling to seek treatment before being convicted for a crime, you don’t want to work with someone who assumes this won’t be a problem for you.
Who Else Will be Working on my Case?
If you are working with a large firm, the attorney you speak with at your consultation might not even be the one that handles your case. Always ask who will be working on your case and see if you can meet and evaluate them as well. When it comes to solo practitioners like me, the lawyer you meet with initially will be the same one handling your entire case.
While law firms claim clients receive team representation, criminal cases are almost always resolved by an individual lawyer in court. I simply get better results by serving as the client’s lawyer in court. With over 35 years of experience, I have earned the respect of prosecutors and judges, which pays off for my clients.
How Much do you Think This Will Cost, and What Payment Methods do you Accept?
While fees may go up if the case drags on or if you and your attorney later agree to hire expert witnesses or private investigators, an honest lawyer should be able to give you some estimate at the start of your case. Additionally, most people will find paying for their attorney easier if he takes credit cards.
How can I Contact You?
You don’t want to be in the dark about your case. A reliable attorney should give you contact information to talk to them whenever necessary. They should also be readily available and willing to return calls as needed, even on weekends and holidays.
How Long Will This Case Last?
Again, this estimate may vary based on factors that arise later on. However, an experienced lawyer should be able to give you at least a general estimate based on the information you provide during your consultation.
Your Situational-Specific Questions
This list features generic questions that could help anyone accused of a crime. However, if you have any questions that apply to your specific situation, be sure to bring them up with the prospective criminal defense attorney during your consultation.
Attorney Red Flags to Watch Out For
There are more than 195,000 active, licensed lawyers in California, most of whom are reputable, trustworthy, and honest. However, a handful of attorneys are willing to cut corners, make false promises, cheat clients, bend the rules, and otherwise act unethically. When hiring a lawyer, be on the lookout for these red flags.
Don’t Trust Someone Who Guarantees Your Outcome
A trustworthy attorney should be able to evaluate your case and give you a fair assessment of your situation and what their track record has been with similar cases. While knowing how they have fared in the past is a good indicator of how they will perform in the future, no one can guarantee how a criminal case will end. An ethical, honest lawyer should be able to tell you the worst-case, best-case, and most realistic outcomes for your situation. Criminal defense attorneys who promise a not-guilty verdict are selling you a line, not the truth.
Avoid Working With Someone Who is Too Busy for You
If someone is too busy to meet you in person, listen to you and answer any questions you might have, they may have enough time to help you successfully fight the charges you are facing. While your attorney may not be available 24/7 because they likely have other cases and a life outside of work, they should always return your calls in a timely manner and find time to schedule appointments with you.
I make myself available to clients at all hours of the day, thanks to my 24-hour live answering service. As a solo practitioner, I offer each client personalized and dedicated service.
Only Trust Lawyers Who are Upfront About Their Fees
Be suspicious if an attorney’s office isn’t upfront and transparent about how much they charge. Since most lawyers charge by the hour, they may be unable to give you an exact estimate of how much your case will cost from start to finish. But attorneys should be willing to provide you with their precise hourly rate and be upfront about additional fees or surcharges. If they have experience fighting charges like yours, they should give you a reasonable estimate based on how long they usually spend on similar cases.
Watch Out for Lawyers With Poor Ratings or a Lack of Respect
While one or two negative reviews on a review site could just mean someone was disgruntled after losing their case, if a lawyer has consistently low reviews on Yelp, Google, and AVVO, run the other way.
Also, it is a bad sign if other attorneys or judges do not respect a defense lawyer. To be taken seriously in court, a lawyer must be respected, so worthwhile attorneys tend to have good relationships with others in the justice system.
Be Suspicious of a Lack of Enthusiasm or Overenthusiasm
Your lawyer should be sufficiently confident and interested in your case to build a strong defense. A criminal defense attorney is not right for your case if they are unsure or indifferent about your situation or the law. On the other hand, you should be equally concerned by a lawyer who seems overconfident and doesn’t take your circumstances seriously. Your attorney should be invested in and realistic about your situation.
Similarly, an attorney should be sympathetic to your circumstances. If your lawyer cannot be bothered to have compassion for your situation, how could they possibly make a judge or jury sympathize with you?
Avoid Anyone With a History of Unethical Behavior
It’s difficult to tell that someone is untrustworthy the first time you meet them, but if your lawyer ever indicates that he has a conflict of interest, asks you to lie under oath, tells you to destroy or hide evidence, implies that he can bribe or blackmail someone on your behalf, or does anything else that seems morally or legally questionable, you should seek new legal representation immediately.
Avoid working with unethical attorneys, as those charged with breaking the law sometimes must break lawyer/client confidentiality. Protect your rights by working with someone with the highest levels of professional integrity.
Check the State Bar Association website to see if the attorney has any complaints, misconduct charges, or malpractice accusations against him. In my case, the answer is no.