Any person who is facing a criminal charge, no matter how minor, will benefit from consulting a competent criminal defense lawyer. Even if the lawyer is not retained to provide representation in court, a consultation will help a criminal defendant understand the nature of the charges filed, available defenses, what plea bargains are likely to be offered, and what is likely to happen in the event of conviction.
For serious charges, it will be a rare defendant who does not benefit from having a competent criminal defense lawyer assist with the negotiation of a plea bargain, or to prepare a case for trial.
A criminal defense lawyer should also be able to identify important pretrial issues, and to bring appropriate motions which might significantly improve a defendant's situation, or even result in the dismissal of charges.
The cost of a criminal defense lawyer can vary significantly depending upon the jurisdiction, and the nature of the charges which have been filed (or which are expected to be filed) against the defendant. A lawyer will typically require a greater retainer for a complex case than for a simple case. The amount of a retainer will also typically increase with the severity of the charge filed against a defendant. Sometimes, though, a relatively minor charge can require a higher retainer, where the attorney expects to have to engage in extensive motion practice, or where it will be necessary to utilize expert witnesses.
In a misdemeanor case, although as previously noted the typical fee will vary significantly between cities, counties, and states, it is not unusual for a lawyer to request a retainer of several thousand dollars. For felony cases, retainers often start at $5,000 - $10,000, and can be $25,000 or more for serious or life felonies, such as sexual assault cases or homicide. The anticipated cost of expert witnesses can also significantly increase a retainer.
Be wary of entering into a retainer agreement which calls for additional payments if the case will go to trial. It is not unusual for appellate lawyers to hear clients recite that they entered into guilty pleas after they were unable to come up with the necessary funds to pay their lawyers to proceed with a trial. If you do decide to enter into an agreement whereby you will pay an additional retainer if your case goes to trial, make sure that it is an amount you can afford.
It is unfortunately not always easy to find a good criminal defense lawyer. Here are some suggestions:
It may be possible to find a criminal defense lawyer from somebody who is familiar with the lawyer's practice. For example, if you regularly work with a lawyer or law firm, that lawyer may be able to suggest a competent criminal defense lawyer in your area. If your county is served by a public defender's office, sometimes a defender's office will be willing to suggest a competent are defense lawyer. If you have a friend or family member who has been in trouble with the law, that person may be able to make some suggestions.
You may opt to sit through some public sessions of court while criminal cases are being argued. If you find a particular lawyer's performance to be impressive, you may take note of the lawyer's name and later contact the lawyer about the possibility of representing you.
Each state, and some major cities, have organizations of criminal defense lawyers. Some of those organizations offer referral services or online directories, which you can use to find a defense lawyer in your area.
State versus Federal Charges
There are additional factors you may wish to consider when hiring a federal criminal defense attorney, explained in this companion article.
After you have located one or more attorneys whom you wish to consult about your case, call them to schedule appointments. (Find out at that time if they offer a free initial consultation, or if you will be charged for the meeting.) Try to speak with the criminal defense lawyer over the phone before scheduling the appointment. Ask about the lawyer's general experience with criminal defense, and any specific experience with cases like yours.
Trust your instincts
If you aren't comfortable with an attorney you consult, try a different office. You do not have any obligation to hire a lawyer merely because you consulted with that lawyer. If your lawyer is promising you that your case is easy, or makes promises that you won't go to jail, speak to other lawyers before signing a retainer agreement - some lawyers misrepresent the gravity of a defendant's situation or the complexity of a case in order to entice the defendant to pay a retainer, and then blame the judge or prosecutor when the rosy scenario they initially promised turns out to be a nightmare.
Read the Retainer Agreement
Read the entire fee agreement with the lawyer before you sign it, and make sure you get a copy for your own records. Make sure you understand how you are being billed, and whether you will be entitled to a refund of a portion of your retainer if the charge is dismissed.
People who are charged with felony offenses, and many individuals who are charged with misdemeanors, may be eligible for appointed counsel or for assistance through a public defender's office. When a defendant petitions for a court-appointed lawyer, the trial judge will typically make an assessment of the defendant's resources to determine if the defendant will qualify for an appointment of a criminal defense lawyer. When an appointment is made, although the defendant may be ordered to repay certain attorney fees following a guilty plea or conviction, there will not ordinarily be any fee in the event of acquittal or dismissal of the charges.
Some people assume that a court appointed criminal defense lawyer will offer services which are inferior to a privately retained lawyer. While it is certainly true that some public defenders, some appointed lawyers, and some private attorneys will prove to be insufficiently skilled or dedicated to their work to provide an effective defense, it is generally asserted that the average public defender will provide better representation than the average private criminal defense lawyer. The primary reasons for this include experience, as a professional public defender will typically have much more experience with criminal cases than a private lawyer, the ability to collaborate with other experienced lawyers within the office, and also due to the resources and systems available to a typical public defender's office. Many private criminal defense lawyers take appointments - meaning that if you are charged in a jurisdiction that appoints private lawyers to represent criminal defendants, many of the lawyers you might otherwise retain will be among those to whom a court might assign your case. And even if you are ordered to repay legal fees, the cost of an appointed lawyer is almost always significantly lower than the cost of a retained lawyer.
In short, if you can hire an effective criminal defense lawyer you should not hesitate to do so. But, if your means are limited, you should also not hesitate to request an appointed defense lawyer, and should not fear that you will receive inferior representation just because your lawyer was appointed.
It is important to note that your constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel relates almost exclusively to the performance of appointed counsel. It is virtually impossible to convice an appellate court that the incompetence of counsel of your own choosing constitutes an error requiring reversal. If you are not comfortable with the competence of your lawyer, retained or appointed, consult with a second lawyer to have your situation reviewed. It may well turn out that your lawyer is competent - but it is you who could go to prison, not your lawyer, if the lawyer is inept.