Until they have to, most people don’t think about hiring a lawyer, let alone a criminal defense lawyer. Knowing how to find a criminal defense attorney is not on a regular person’s mind. Time may come, however, when this question becomes not only relevant but crucial to your quality of life.
At Norman Spencer Law Group, we speak with individuals looking for a defense attorney every day. After years of consulting with prospective clients, we realize that many people who need to retain a criminal lawyer are not prepared to make an educated decision. Instead, they make emotional decisions. That is understandable but is also ineffective. How do you know whether the criminal defense lawyer you hire is the best one for you?
Hiring a criminal defense lawyer is your responsibility, and nobody can make that decision for you in most cases. However, you can educate yourself on some of the basics so you can make that choice with confidence. In this guide, we share some of our thoughts on choosing the best criminal defense lawyer for your unique situation. Some things are self-obvious, but some are not, and some may even seem counter-intuitive. If you have more questions after reviewing this guide, feel free to call us for a consultation.
No Single Lawyer Can Be the Best at Every Legal Branch for Every Client
First, there is no such thing as the best lawyer. Many bar associations frown upon lawyers calling themselves the best in their advertisements, and most people would agree that there is no such thing. There is no best food, just as there are no best doctors or best architects.
Some legal services are suitable for some people but are not so good for others. Some things are always wrong; we all agree to that. However, there isn’t one thing that is always good for everyone at all times. The same goes for attorneys. Let’s apply this to criminal defense lawyers. Some are good at what they do, and some are not. Some are good for some types of criminal cases but not for others. Some are good for certain types of clients but would not fare well with others.
There are many private criminal defense lawyers in the United States. We have more lawyers than any other country, and that number is growing each year as more students enter law schools and more prosecutors leave their jobs to enter private practice. Here are more interesting facts on lawyers:
- As of 2020, there are 1.33 million lawyers in the U.S.
- Approximately 50,000 of those are criminal defense attorneys
- Federal criminal defense attorneys must be admitted to the bar of a specific federal court before practicing in it
- 57% of consumers search online for a lawyer on their own
The Internet is bustling with thousands of attorney websites, many claiming to be the best or the most experienced in the field. How do you decide which firm is the right one? Let’s break it down.
Look Beyond the Marketing Tactics
Unless you already know a lawyer to speak with or find a lawyer through word of mouth, chances are you are like most other prospective clients. You will turn to the Internet search. You will find an infinite number of sites offering their services. Here, you are at risk of getting lost and making an emotional decision rather than a rational one.
Law firms are businesses. That means that they have to market themselves to get new clients. There is nothing wrong with it. Marketing is vital for any business and always has been. To be successful, the marketing campaign needs to sell to customers or clients. Many firms use bells and whistles to attract clients and push you into making emotional decisions. It’s called converting. This strategy has been used since the beginning of marketing and is not specific to lawyers.
Recognizing this is important. It doesn’t always mean that the firm that uses tacky and loud statements does not provide good services or is unethical. Just remember that when you see a site like that, you are being sold to. Looking beyond what you see on a website will help you make the best decision about hiring a criminal defense lawyer who is right for you.
Federal or State: An Attorney with the Right Experience is Crucial
The most important question you should ask is whether the lawyer you are considering has the right experience. The correct question would be, does the lawyer have the right expertise for your case, your situation, and in the jurisdiction where your case is. No lawyer will admit on their website that they have no experience. That’s something you need to decide for yourself. Here are some thoughts.
If your case is pending in federal courts or if you deal with a federal agency investigating you, then your lawyer must have experience in federal courts and with the relevant agencies. Most laypeople don’t realize that, but federal criminal practice is dramatically different from state criminal practice. Besides various statutes, federal cases are governed by totally different procedural rules.
Some techniques apply to federal practice that are non-existent in state practice. Most defense attorneys focus on state work but have limited experience with federal cases. Some do a little bit of everything. And yes, some lawyers are generalists. They take any case that comes through their door.
A Serious Situation Needs a Specialized Attorney
So, if you are facing a federal investigation or indictment, hire a lawyer who focuses on federal defense. A lawyer who handles other areas of law, as well as criminal defense, may not be your best choice. You would not ask your dentist to do heart surgery. You will not go to a criminal lawyer if you want to get a divorce or consider bankruptcy. Therefore, you naturally need to look for an attorney who helps clients like you in cases like yours. Ideally, that should be that attorney’s primary focus area.
When you look at a law firm’s site, consider that. Larger firms have specialized practice area groups with attorneys who only focus on their areas. Smaller firms do not have that luxury. Many smaller criminal law practices and solo practitioners handle essentially any criminal case. You can see that in their practice areas.
Now, no lawyer is only specializing in only one type of criminal case. That is practically impossible. However, suppose the list of a firm’s criminal practice areas has things like DUI, battery, misdemeanors, domestic violence, and federal crimes. In that case, that firm is a general criminal defense firm. It doesn’t mean that they can’t handle a federal case like yours effectively, but they would probably not be considered specialists in cases like yours. Some bar associations don’t let their lawyers hold themselves as specialists in a particular area, but the idea is that they don’t focus on the type of matters you have.
If you do an Internet search for a particular firm, you may find that they also run sites dedicated to non-criminal areas, such as family law, bankruptcy, negligence, and so on. It is the preferred way of converting clients to keep separate sites and run separate marketing campaigns from a marketing perspective. That is another indication that the lawyer you are looking at is a generalist. Again, it does not mean the lawyer won’t be able to handle your case, but you may want someone with a particular focus on the case like yours.
Beware of Bold Claims and Inflated Results
This is where things get emotional. We are attracted to things we want. Past results are essential, of course. However, if used as bait, they are misleading. Good examples are the words such as “not losing,” “winning,” etc. Lawyers who don’t try cases don’t lose them. Winning is not always what it seems like. As legitimate legal professionals, we’d define winning as securing the best possible outcome for a particular client in a specific matter.
Marketing is essential, but so is giving you a realistic expectation. No lawyer should lead you to believe that you will always have the result you want if you hire that lawyer. That’s not right by any measure.
Read Online Reviews of Defense Attorneys in Context
Research shows that users put almost as much trust in online reviews as in personal recommendations in today’s society. You may see some law firms with a much higher number of client reviews than others. However, one thing to realize is that services like Google require users to have personal accounts to leave reviews. All reviews, including the reviewer’s name, are public. How many individuals are willing to tell the world that they were criminal defendants, investigated, or charged with crimes? Not many. Most would be reluctant to share that information.
Therefore, most firms that are working actively in the industry will have an average number of reviews. When you see a firm with the number of Internet reviews considerably higher than the average, you should ask why did all those former clients willingly let the world know that they had problems with the law?
Are Former Prosecutors Better Defense Attorneys?
Many criminal defense attorneys are former prosecutors. They use that fact in their marketing campaign. The implication is that they are somehow poised to obtain better results. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Some former prosecutors do make excellent defense attorneys. However, there is no correlation between the two. Some former prosecutors are not good defense lawyers at all. Here are some examples:
- Some former prosecutors had their tenure in local district attorney offices and have little or no experience in the federal system or the particular area of law. That also goes for former federal prosecutors. For example, a lawyer who prosecuted violent federal crimes or drug crimes may not necessarily have a good grasp of handling white-collar crimes or healthcare fraud.
- Prosecuting defendants requires different skills compared to defending them. To put it simply, it’s much more manageable. Prosecutors have much better resources at their disposal. They have teams of agents and experts who work their cases and make them ready for trial – before the defendant is even aware of anything. The fact patterns and evidence in many criminal cases are such that prosecuting them is often a walk in the park, while defending them is a formidable task.
On the other hand, good defense lawyers are skilled in finding creative solutions, often in impossible situations, to protect their clients. That is something to keep in mind. Some of the best defense attorneys we have seen in the field are those who were never prosecutors. Instead, they spent their careers in the defense bar.
Be Willing to Go Beyond the Free Consultation
Free consultation became a norm amongst many attorneys. Many clients expect free consultations and specifically ask for them. Here are some thoughts. However, it takes time to sit down with a client, listen to their story, analyze their situation, and offer an expert opinion on the matter. After getting the facts and reviewing the documents, lawyers must explain the process to the prospective clients. That takes time and effort.
The only commodity lawyers have in the legal business is time. It is often unrealistic to expect the consultation to be meaningful if it only takes a short time. The truth is that a lawyer who is willing to speak with you for at least an hour for free has this time to spend. That means that the lawyer is not busy or is desperate to get business.
When you get a free consultation, you will usually hear the lawyer tell you how experienced there are and how much you have to pay them. That is not all you want to hear. Remember, you get what you pay for. The words free consultation are sometimes nothing more than a marketing trick to get prospective clients to pick up the phone.
Think of it this way. Have you ever tried to get a free consultation with a doctor when you require medical help? You’d likely never even get beyond a receptionist. Even if you did, no doctor would be able to diagnose you without spending time with you and running and analyzing tests. Lawyers are no different.
So, How Do I Decide Which Lawyer to Hire?
If you read this far, you’re probably asking yourself what to take from all this. Well, we are all human, and we don’t always decide on logic. Emotions still play a massive role in our decision-making process. The best way to make decisions is to combine common sense, knowledge, and yes, feelings. Here is a quick summary that includes a balanced mix:
- When you need to look for a criminal defense lawyer and don’t know anyone, you should start with online research.
- Consider the information shared in this article as you go through various sites. Using this guide, you will easily reject most websites you see.
- Once you are left with the few, you are willing to consider, call them up and speak with them on the phone. Your intuition will suggest which firms to interview.
- Then, schedule a consultation to speak with the lawyers you feel are the best fit. And yes, remember that paid consultations get you better results.
You always get what you pay for. Saving a few hundred dollars may not seem like a good idea a year from now when you’ve spent thousands, and things don’t go the right way. At Norman Spencer Law Group, we will provide you with the most accurate and comprehensive information possible. We will evaluate your situation and talk with you. Then, you can decide for yourself if we are a good fit for your needs. Please call the firm at (212) 577-6677, or complete our intake form to schedule a meeting.