Last Sunday, I had a consultation call with a fellow who, as it turned out, needed to hire a criminal defense lawyer from another state. After we figured that out, we spent about ten minutes talking about how to hire a lawyer.
One question that I haven’t discussed here is, “should I hire somebody who specializes in the particular crime that I’m charged with?” For example, do you need a drug case lawyer, or a lawyer who handles internet crimes? For the most part, the answer is “not really.”
Here is what you need in a criminal defense lawyer:
- You need a lawyer who is seriously focused on criminal defense as a primary practice area. Many criminal defense lawyers practice in at least one other area of law, but you need somebody who isn’t just dabbling in criminal defense. This is a specialty area of law and not something that somebody can do with just a law license and no specialized training.
- You need a lawyer who practices in the jurisdiction where you’re charged. Because of my YouTube, I get a lot of calls asking me to take a case in Georgia or New Jersey or Minnesota. This poses two problems. First, I’m not licensed there, and second, I don’t know what I’m doing there. A lot of criminal defense is about knowing how the fine points of local law and rules help your case. Even if I could get special permission to appear out of state, I wouldn’t be as effective as I am in my home jurisdiction because I don’t know that state’s law or court rules.
- I may take some flak for this, but I don’t think you need somebody who is a specialist in the particular courthouse where you are charged. Knowing all the personalities in the clerk’s office, the DA’s office, the judges, and the court staff can grease the wheels in some cases, but it can also lead to a familiarity that sometimes limits a lawyer’s willingness to aggressively represent their client and piss those people off. (Defense strategies that fear pissing people off are occasionally appropriate but often cowardly. It is a defense lawyer’s job to piss people off. We get good results by making sure everybody knows that when we fight, it will hurt to be on the other side). When I practice in an unfamiliar courthouse, I make a point of talking to people who know the place better than I do, to make sure that I get the inside scoop on who’s who. And then I get things done.
- Related to the above, you need a lawyer who fights and tries cases. What that will mean in terms of actual trial numbers varies a lot from one county and state to the next–sometimes from court to court. But you need a lawyer who is trial-focused. Even a lawyer who is trial-focused will still do a lot of pleas, but they will know which cases not to plead out, and what to do with those.
- You need a lawyer who is familiar with your type of case. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they specialize in it (it’s hard enough to run a business specializing exclusively in criminal defense, and I don’t know anybody who specializes exclusively in a particular type of criminal case–with a couple of exceptions below). It means that if you are charged with an internet crime, you want a lawyer who knows what to do with one of those — not somebody who is uncomfortable with the internet and only signed up for email because the Bar said they had to.
- If you’re charged in a white collar crime, you should consider a lawyer who specializes in white collar cases. This is an exception to the general rule above. If you’re charged with a homicide, you should hire a lawyer who has handled homicide cases and knows what to do with them. Even then, you are likely to get a lawyer who also does other things. And that’s okay.