Whether you think you might be under some sort of criminal investigation or you’ve actually been arrested and/or charged with a crime, you need to talk to an attorney as soon as possible. You’ve heard it on television and in movies dozens of times: “you have the right to hire an attorney; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.” If you can afford to hire your own lawyer, you absolutely should. First of all, the court-appointed attorney system is designed only for people who truly cannot afford to hire their own attorney. Abusing that system by requesting a court-appointed counsel when you could afford to hire an attorney could get you in trouble with the judge and even expose you to additional legal trouble. Beyond that, however, many court-appointed attorneys have large caseloads which means they may not be able to devote the same amount of time and attention to your case as someone you’ve hired to represent you. Perhaps the biggest drawback to a court-appointed attorney is that you don’t get to pick them for yourself; they are assigned to you by the court. If you don’t click with your court-appointed attorney or you don’t feel that they’re giving your case the attention it deserves, you don’t get to just get a new court-appointed attorney. Judges rarely removed court-appointed attorneys on the defendant’s request. You do, however, have the right to hire a criminal defense attorney of your choosing. It may seem obvious, but perhaps the biggest benefit is that a hired attorney is someone that you’ve chosen as the right fit for you.
When is the Right Time to Hire?
The short answer: as early as possible! The longer you wait the more harm you could be (unwittingly) doing to you case (and ultimately to yourself). Most importantly, an experienced criminal defense attorney can protect your rights and devise a defense strategy. A criminal defense attorney that gets involved in your case early may also be able to steer the police into not even filing your case or getting a case that has been filed dismissed or reduced. Finding the right attorney can take time, so you don’t want to wait until just before you have court scheduled or worse after you’ve had a number of court settings already.
Criminal Defense Experience Matters
You wouldn’t go to an ear/nose/throat doctor if you were having issues with your foot. Attorneys are no different: there are attorneys who handle cases of all types, but most focus on one or a small handful of areas of law. Subject matter expertise is built with time and experience handling a type of case over and over. You should ask how much how much of the attorney’s practice is devoted to criminal defense. Some attorneys occassionally take a criminal case, but they’re not going to know the law, the judges and prosecutors, and all the possible options the same way as someone who regularly represents criminal defendants.
Type & Location of Case
Experience with a certain type of criminal case is an important consideration as well. There are big differences between state criminal cases and federal criminal cases. The laws and even the court systems operate very differently, so you want to make sure the attorney you’re hiring has the necessary knowledge and experience in the court system in which you’re charged. You should also consider whether the lawyer you’re considering hiring has much experience handling the type of charge you’re facing. Many attorneys focus their practice even further, concentrating primarily on DWI cases or drug cases. If you’re facing a DWI that attorney might be the perfect fit, but probably not if you’re facing a charge like sexual assault or murder. Where your case is charged also matters. Courts in Dallas County operate differently than courts in Tyler, Lubbock, Montgomery Counties. Local rules and local norms of practice can make a big difference, as does knowing the tendencies and personalities of the judge and prosecutors.
Some criminal defense attorneys offer free consultations while others charge for a consultation. Make sure you understand when scheduling a consultation if the attorney charges a consultation fee, if so how much, and how long the consultation will be. It’s also very important to understand before you hire an attorney how much you’ll be paying and what services the fee you pay covers. Some attorneys charge an hourly rate for the time they spend on your case. An hourly fee attorney will generally charge you a retainer amount that you’ll pay upfront and then they will bill from that retainer based on the hours they work, invoicing you to replenish the retainer as necessary as the case goes along. Many criminal defense attorneys (if not most) charge a flat fee as opposed to an hourly fee. With a flat fee you pay a set amount which does not go up or down based on the number of hours the attorney works on the case. Make sure you fully understand how the attorney’s fee works and what it covers. Most attorneys who charge a flat fee, for instance, charge a “non-trial fee” to cover all representation up to the point of setting a case for trial and then an additional “trial fee” if the case is scheduled for trial. Besides the attorney’s fees, make sure you ask whether the attorney anticipates other costs like expert witnesses, investigators, or other services.
Whether you feel comfortable with and ultimately can trust an attorney is perhaps the most important factor to consider. An attorney with all the right experience and legal knowledge that, for whatever reason, you don’t trust or who won’t call you back is not the right attorney for you. From your very first interaction with an attorney’s office you’ll start to get a picture of who that attorney is and whether they’re the right fit for you. How do they or their staff treat you? Are they responsive? You should schedule a consultation with the attorney in-person or – as is getting more and more common – by video or telephone so you can get a feel for the attorney.
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