How can I find a private defense lawyer?

Recently arrested people should usually talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. The most urgent priority is often getting a lawyer to arrange a defendant's release and provide some information about what's to come in the days ahead.

If you have been represented by a criminal defense lawyer in the past, that is usually the lawyer to call -- assuming you were satisfied with their services. If you have no previous experience with criminal defense lawyers, you can look to the following sources for a referral:

Lawyers you know. Most lawyers do civil (noncriminal) work, such as divorces, drafting wills, filing bankruptcies, or representing people hurt in accidents. If you know any attorneys that you trust, ask them to recommend a criminal defense lawyer. (Some lawyers who do civil work can also represent clients in criminal matters, at least for the limited purpose of arranging for release from jail following an arrest.)
Family members or friends. Someone close to you may know of a criminal defense lawyer or may have time to look for one.

Referral services. Lawyer referral services are another source of information, but there is a wide variation in the quality of lawyer referral services. Some lawyer referral services carefully screen attorneys and list only those attorneys with particular qualifications and a certain amount of past experience, while other services will list any attorney in good standing with the state bar who maintains liability insurance. Before you choose a lawyer referral service, ask what its qualifications are for including an attorney and how carefully lawyers are screened.
Courthouses. You can visit a local courthouse and sit through a few criminal hearings. If a particular lawyer impresses you, ask for her card after the hearing is over, and then call for an appointment.

What is a private lawyer likely to cost?

It's impossible to give a definitive answer. Attorneys set their own fees, which vary according to a number of factors:

  • The complexity of a case. Most attorneys charge more for felonies than for misdemeanors because felonies carry greater penalties and are likely to involve more work for the attorney.
  • The attorney's experience. Generally, less-experienced attorneys set lower fees than their more-experienced colleagues.
  • Geography. Just as gasoline and butter cost more in some parts of the country than others, so do lawyers.
  • A defendant charged with a misdemeanor should not be surprised by a legal fee in the neighborhood of $3,000-$5,000; an attorney may want $15,000-$25,000 in a felony case.

Most criminal defense attorneys want all or a substantial portion of the fee paid up front. Contingency fees, arrangements where the lawyer gets paid only if he wins the case, are not allowed in criminal cases.

Do I need a lawyer at my arraignment?

In most criminal courts the arraignment is where you first appear before a judge and enter a plea of guilty or not guilty to the offense charged. Assuming you enter a plea of not guilty, which almost every defendant does at this early stage, the following steps also happen at the arraignment:

  • The judge sets a date for the next procedural event in your case
  • The judge considers any bail requests that you or the prosecutor make
  • The judge appoints a lawyer for you, if appropriate, and
  • The judge may ask you to "waive time" -- that is, give up your right to have the trial or other statutory proceedings occur within specified periods of time.
    Most people can handle this proceeding without a lawyer. However, if you can get the court to appoint a lawyer for you without postponing the arraignment, or you are able to arrange for private representation before your arraignment, it's always better to have a lawyer.

Should I represent myself in a criminal case?

The most obvious rule is that the less severe the charged crime, the more sensible it is to represent yourself. Defendants charged with minor traffic offenses should rarely hire an attorney, while defendants charged with serious felonies should rarely be without one.

The most critical piece of information that defendants should try to learn before deciding whether to hire an attorney is what the punishment is likely to be if they are convicted. Hiring an attorney in these situations may be wise when jail time and a fine are possibilities. Convictions may also carry hidden costs, such as more severe punishment for a second conviction or increased insurance rates.

Can I change lawyers if I'm unhappy with the one representing me?

Requests for a change of public defender or court-appointed lawyer are rarely granted. A defendant would have to prove that the representation is truly incompetent.

On the other hand, defendants who hire their own attorneys have the right to fire them at any time, without court approval. A defendant doesn't have to show "good cause" or justify the firing. After firing a lawyer, a defendant can hire another lawyer or perhaps even represent herself. Of course, changing lawyers will probably be costly. In addition to paying the new lawyer, the defendant will have to pay the original lawyer whatever portion of the fee the original lawyer has earned.

Your right to change lawyers is limited by the prosecutor's right to keep cases moving on schedule. If you want to change attorneys on the eve of trial, for example, your new attorney is likely to agree to represent you only if the trial is delayed so she can prepare. The prosecutor may oppose the delay, possibly because witnesses won't be available to testify later on. In these circumstances, the judge is likely to deny your request to change lawyers.