Something has happened; you need an attorney and you need one now. You flip open the phone book, or more likely fire up your internet browser, and start searching for the person who will be responsible to protect your freedom. You immediately encounter a problem: everyone says that he or she is your best option. What gives? How is anyone supposed to make heads or tails out of the mind-numbing array of attorneys who are all claiming to be the best? They cannot all have graduated at the top of their classes; someone that you are reading about has to be mediocre — or worse.
As an attorney at the largest criminal defense firm in my state, let me give you some tips to sort the wheat from the chaff. A lot is not covered here, but I want to give you some important basic things to watch for as you get going. So, let’s dive in and look at seven essential tips on how to hire the right attorney.
1. Watch the content, not the volume.
To start, have you ever noticed that every law firm advertisement seems the same? “We are tough, we will fight for you and we win a lot.” Sound familiar? If not, it will by the tenth time that you’ve read it. Various state bar rules for regulating (and even prohibiting) lawyer advertising can leave law firms unable to say much about win rates, average case outcomes, etc. to differentiate themselves. It usually leaves law firms to all sing the same song, just at different volumes. Tune it out! It might be an insight into a firm’s style, or it might just be advertising jargon. Unless you are well connected with attorneys or know someone who is, you won’t really know. And if you had that resource, you probably wouldn’t be reading this.
2. Your best lawyer practices specific law.
A general practitioner, or an attorney who handles multiple areas of law in the course of his or her ordinary practice, may be a fine choice for a real estate closing but will almost certainly be the wrong call for anything in a criminal case or major lawsuit. Don’t be the person who thinks that a hammer, saw and roll of duct tape can tackle all of life’s challenges. Typically, the best solution to a specific problem is a specific tool. You wouldn’t call a plumber to handle an electrical problem or rely on the dentist to realign your car. Why is getting a lawyer who may only pop into criminal court a few times a year any different? When seeking a lawyer, ask how many areas of law he or she practices. Most criminal defense attorneys will practice one or two other areas, maybe more in a more rural area, and that’s not necessarily disqualifying criteria. Odds are, though, that if you find someone who only does criminal defense, then you’ve probably found someone strongly worth considering.
3. Don’t call only one attorney.
Without talking to several attorneys (at least three to four), it is impossible to have standards by which to measure. Do your homework by looking online or talking with people and then call around and talk to your potential lawyer. Does it sound like he or she has handled this type of case before? Is he or she taking the time to answer your questions and address your concerns or constantly rushing to get off the phone and avoiding specifics? Learn to trust your gut. Remember that you are trusting your life to this person. If he or she is uncertain during a basic intake call, how do you think that will look in front of a prosecutor, judge and jury?
4. It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.
It’s quite common to see attorneys brag about how many years they have done “X” area of law. Great! But does that mean that they are actually good at it? We all know people who have been in their jobs for years but still don’t know what they’re doing. An attorney isn’t any different. Simply existing is not a résumé builder, and you shouldn’t be persuaded by it either. Rather than focusing on the amount of years since he or she obtained his or her law license, focus on the number of cases like yours that he or she has handled. I would trust the attorney who is 5-10 years out but handles 100+ cases like mine per year far more than the guy who has been at it 25+ years but has handled less than 100 in total.
5. Awards are fine, but don’t stop your analysis there.
In case you didn’t know, there is a burgeoning cottage industry of selling “awards” to professionals — not just lawyers — so that those professionals can use them for marketing. The law firm where I work is routinely blanketed in advertisements trying to sell meaningless awards. Some awards are considered very prestigious and are definitely worthy of pausing and taking note. But do you know which ones? Odds are that if you did, you probably would not need to read this. So the attorney you are considering has won some awards — or maybe just purchased them — but what difference does that actually make? If he or she seems to know his or her stuff and takes the time to answer your questions thoroughly and clearly, that is what matters.
6. Find a lawyer with whom you are comfortable.
While finding the best hired gun is going to be important for getting the best result, it is important not to lose track of the fact that this is a person with whom you will be communicating a lot over the course of your case. If you are uncomfortable with or untrusting of your lawyer, or if you ever feel like he or she is not listening, then he/she is not the person for you. Communication and trust may improve over time — or they may not. Odds are good that you just haven’t found the right attorney for you. Keep calling and see who else is out there.
7. Start your attorney search early.
Usually, by the time you need an attorney, especially after an arrest, you are already far behind the eight ball. Take some time now — and I mean right now — to do some research on qualified attorneys in your area. Then write them down. Keep in mind that you may be behind bars and unable to participate in the search for your attorney. You may be relying on friends and family. If you can at least give them three to five firms that you’ve already researched, you’ll have saved your family tremendous amounts of time and work should they ever need to pick up the phone and dial.
The process of hiring an attorney is far from fun. On the contrary, it is daunting and often very expensive. Being prepared to hire an attorney may start with reading these tips, but it doesn’t end there. Be financially ready to move forward once you find the right one by becoming a USCCA Member.
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