Using a Private Criminal Defense Lawyer

A three part article on finding, choosing, and paying a private criminal defense attorney.

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 many cities.

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 professionals.
  • Bail bond sellers, who are usually in regular contact with private defense lawyers.

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 criminal charge.
  • Nolo’s Lawyer Directory. Nolo has a free and easy to use online directory of lawyers, organized by location and area of expertise.
  • 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.

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