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How to Hire A Criminal Defense Lawyer

My practice is exclusively criminal defense. I speak to people everyday that are looking to hire an experienced, zealous criminal defense attorney. Generally, because of the nature of my practice, individuals who call me are in desperate or urgent situations and they are looking to hire someone who will do everything humanly possible to protect them or their family member.

So, if you are looking to hire a lawyer for representation on a case or on a pre-charge basis, how do you do it?

There are several things to look at. First, and this may seem obvious but it is surprising how many times people miss it, make sure that the lawyer you are talking with exclusively handles criminal cases. Just because some attorney handled your divorce or the closing on your house does not mean that lawyer is qualified to handle a criminal case. Look at it this way, if you needed heart surgery, would you hire a brain surgeon? Both are doctor’s right? Obviously you would not hire a brain surgeon and you would hire the best heart doctor you can find because when something important is on the line, it is critical that you hire a specialist. It is the same with Michigan criminal defense lawyers.

This part is also important. Not all criminal defense lawyers handle all criminal cases. Federal law, for example, is generally dramatically different from state law. Some criminal defense attorneys mostly handle misdemeanors and would not be qualified to handle a serious felony allegation. Make sure the lawyer you are interviewing handles the type of case that you are dealing with.

If you do not know a lawyer, check out some attorney groups focusing on criminal defense. An excellent resource is Avvo (a lawyer review website) where most of the experienced criminal defense attorneys in Michigan are rated based upon a complex algorithm that factors in experience, industry recognition, client reviews and attorney endorsements. Avvo lists areas of practice for attorneys and you will be able to quickly weed out the lawyers who handle civil cases in addition to criminal matters. A Google search is mandatory these days to further investigate any lawyer you are considering hiring.

Most criminal defense lawyers will offer free consultations and many will meet with clients 24-hours per day, 7 days per week when necessary. After you find a lawyer that you feel you can trust and who will fight for you, make an appointment and go visit the potential lawyer. You should never agree to hire a lawyer without meeting him or her in person first.

Should you find out the fee before you go to see the lawyer? That depends. Many lawyers will give you a range of potential fees if possible or tell you a minimum deposit that may be required before you make an appointment. Most experienced criminal defense attorneys will not quote a fee over the telephone. Be very suspicious of any lawyer who quotes their fees on the internet or over the telephone after a brief consultation. The fact is that every case is different and a lawyer who charges the same fees for all cases or types of cases is probably desperate or inexperienced. Consider for example, a felony violation of probation can be quite simple or highly complex. If the defendant is being violated because he was convicted of a new offense, the defense attorney’s job is damage control and sentence minimization. If on the other hand the defendant has 5 allegations and he claims that he is innocent of the violations, numerous witnesses may have to be called, experts may have to be consulted and hearings may need to be conducted. The second defendant’s case is much more complicated and will necessitate higher legal fees.

As a second example, consider a lawyer that has a pre-set charge of $2,500.00 per case for OWI (operating while intoxicated) First Offense. Client A was in an accident, had a blood/alcohol level of .16, admitted to police that he drank excessive quantities of alcohol and completely obliterated the sobriety tests. He does not want to fight his case and he just wants to go for the most lenient sentence possible. Client B was stopped for weaving within his lane, had a breath/alcohol level of .08 on a Datamaster that was not properly calibrated and the officer claims he failed field sobriety tests but the video doesn’t completely substantiate the officer’s observations. This client is going to need a suppression hearing, a Daubert (scientific admissibility) hearing, and a hearing on the admissibility of the field sobriety tests. The lawyer may be alright with Client A and he may even do a half-way decent job. Client B is in big trouble. The lawyer is just not going to take the time necessary to properly advocate for Client B because his representation in that case is going to be financial and time burdensome. Client B may find himself getting railroaded.

Also stay away from lawyers that promise really good results. Good results can happen, but even the best lawyers do not always get the results they want. The reality is there are three types of cases: cases easily won (acquittal), cases easily lost (conviction), and cases in the middle. Every client wants to think that their case can be easily won. That is not the case and most cases are in the middle. A common sales technique used by some attorneys is to promise certain results like no jail, dismissal or a reduction in charges. In Michigan, the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit a lawyer from making these promises or guarantees. If the lawyer is willing to breach his or her ethical standards to try and get your case, that does not lend much credibility to the promise made to persuade you to hire him or her. If a lawyer makes a promise or guarantee, head for the door.

Cases in which the evidence is rather strong require a lawyer who is an excellent negotiator and who can be very persuasive with the judge at the time of sentencing. Some lawyers are better at negotiations than others…some lawyers are much better.

If you are not familiar with the evidence that will be presented against you, you should be prepared for all possibilities and you should look for a lawyer who is a known trial lawyer but who is proficient with settlement negotiations.

This is one reason why asking, "What is your record?" is not really helpful. What do you mean by 'winning'? Straight acquittal? Does not always happen. Further, the less serious the charge, the greater chance at an acquittal. There are several reasons for this, but a lawyer with a high winning percentage handling misdemeanors may not be as good as a lawyer with a low winning percentage in homicides.

So how do lawyers charge legal fees? Depends upon the case. The overwhelming majority of criminal defense lawyers in Oakland County, Wayne County, Macomb County, Washtenaw County, Livingston County and other Southeastern Michigan jurisdictions charge by flat fees. The best way to structure flat fees is separate flat fees for each stage of the case as opposed to one flat fee for the entire case. There is just too much incentive to resolve a case quickly and without regard for the client’s best interest in those situations where a lawyer charges one fee for the entire case. The most experienced criminal defense attorneys charge a combination of flat fee and hourly fee for clients who are not currently charged with an offense but are being investigated or accused of some type of criminal activity. There are exceptions to every rule and some cases require different fee arrangements.

A written fee agreement is of the utmost importance. It is probably not even ethical for a criminal defense lawyer to take a case and accept a fee without a written fee agreement. Make sure that if you hire an attorney, the lawyer uses a detailed, written fee agreement and he or she reviews it with you in detail. You should ask as many questions as necessary until you have a very clear understanding of the terms and conditions of the fee agreement.

I am regularly hired by people who are already charged and in the middle of the legal process. These individuals are already represented by lawyers but are unhappy with their legal representation. The number one complaint I hear from these clients is that the former attorney would not return phone calls or be patient when discussing the case. This type of behavior from criminal defense lawyers is very disconcerting to me. Those individuals who are charged with criminal offenses are generally in one of the most desperate, tragic times of their lives. If the client’s lawyer will not take the time to patiently listen the client’s questions and concerns, the client’s case is in serious jeopardy.

If you do have some time and have been able to talk with several lawyers, you will most likely wind up with more than one lawyer you are considering. If that is the case, go with the lawyer that you felt the best about. You (or a family member or a friend) are about to go through a pretty traumatic and rough experience.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call me directly.

Mr. Loren Dickstein, Esq.
Michigan Criminal Defense Attorney
2000 Town Center, Ste. 2350
Southfield, MI 48075
(248) 263-6800