This article covers private criminal defense
attorneys: who they are, how to find them,
and what they charge.
What kinds of attorneys offer private
criminal defense services?
Defendants who want to be represented
by an attorney, and can secure a qualified
private attorney on their own, have a Sixth
Amendment right to be represented by the
attorney of their choice (U.S. v. Gonzales-
Lopez, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2006).
Private criminal defense lawyers tend
to practice either on their own or in small
partnerships, and in a specific geographical
setting. By contrast, attorneys who handle
civil cases tend to congregate in large
corporate law firms with branch offices in
While personality differences between
civil and criminal attorneys may account for
some of the variance, the biggest factor is
the differing nature of the work:
- Big-firm civil attorneys tend to represent
companies who do business
all over the country or the world.
Criminal defense lawyers represent
individuals whose problems are
usually quite local.
- Companies represented by big-firm
civil lawyers have a continual need
for legal advice and representation.
Individual criminal defendants tend to
be one-shot players with nonrecurring
or sporadic legal needs.
- The typical private defense attorney
has had several years of experience
working for the government before
going into private practice, either as a
prosecutor (often, a district attorney or
city attorney) or as a public defender.
How can I find a private lawyer if I’m
in jail because I couldn’t bail out?
While they are in jail, defendants have to
overcome two obstacles to hire a lawyer:
- Paying the lawyer’s fee. Criminal defense
lawyers often want the bulk of their
money up front, which means that you will have to come up with some cash
in fairly short order. Because jailed
defendants usually have no money,
they have to find family members or
friends who will put up the money.
- Finding a satisfactory lawyer. If an
arrested suspect has previously been
satisfactorily represented by a criminal
defense lawyer, that is usually the
lawyer whom the suspect should call.
But how should other arrested suspects
proceed? Probably the most fruitful
approach is to get a referral from one or
more of the following sources:
- Civil practitioners. Defendants who
know an attorney in civil practice
can ask that attorney to recommend
a criminal defense lawyer. (Some
civil practitioners, of course, are
also competent to represent clients
in criminal matters, at least for the
limited purpose of arranging for
release from jail following an arrest.)
- Family members or friends, who may
either know of a criminal defense
lawyer or at least have the time to
pursue additional reference sources,
such as family clergy, doctors, or other
- Bail bond sellers, who are usually in
regular contact with private defense
If none of these resources pan out, and
only as a last resort, defendants sometimes
may consider referrals from other jailed
suspects who are satisfied with their lawyers.
How should I go about finding a
lawyer if I’m not in custody?
Many defendants facing criminal charges
are not in custody at the time they seek
to hire an attorney. Either the police issue
them a citation and a court date and never
take them to jail, or they bail out of jail on
their own, without first hiring an attorney.
Like defendants who are in custody,
defendants who are not in jail can seek
referrals from civil lawyers, friends and
relatives, and bail bond sellers. However,
nonjailed defendants have additional
options. The additional sources include:
- On this Website. You can reach out to local criminal defense lawyers quickly and easily using this service.
- A local bar association’s lawyer referral
panel. Attorneys are usually recommended
according to their experience
and the type and seriousness of a
- Nolo’s Lawyer Directory. Nolo has a free and easy
to use online directory of lawyers,
organized by location and area of
- Courthouse visits. Defendants can visit
a local courthouse and sit through a
few criminal hearings. If a particular
lawyer impresses a defendant, the
defendant can ask for that lawyer’s
card (after the hearing has concluded)
and then call for an appointment.
This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.