Facing a criminal charge and possible conviction can negatively impact your life in several ways. Not only can you lose access to your kids, loved ones, and employment opportunities, you can also end up having to pay hefty fines and even spending time in jail. It is estimated that there are about 1,430,800 Americans currently incarcerated as a result of criminal convictions. Retaining the services of a skilled criminal defense attorney near you can go a long way in reducing any penalties that you may have to face as a result of having criminal charges brought against you or even getting them completely dismissed. Criminal defense attorneys are skilled in navigating the complexities of the criminal justice system and these attorneys perform different services, ranging from properly investigating the case against you, analyzing evidence, and selecting an unbiased jury, to negotiating plea deals and active trial participation.
Over 100.4 million cases are filed annually in the United States. In 2018 alone, approximately 17 million and 90,473 criminal cases were filed in state and federal courts respectively. These criminal cases include:
- Assault and battery
- Sexual assault and rape
- Drug-related offenses
- Alcohol-related offenses
- Theft and larceny
- Unlawful firearm possession
- Armed robbery
- Homicide cases
You should immediately retain the services of a criminal defense attorney near you when you are charged with any of the aforementioned crimes. To make sure that your attorney is skilled enough to handle your case, you should ask the following questions:
Where Are You Licensed to Practice Criminal Defense Law in the State You Are?
Before hiring a criminal defense attorney near you, you need to make sure that this attorney is licensed to practice criminal law in the court where your case is filed. Trial courts in the United States are divided into two broad groups, state courts and federal courts, and the procedure for practicing in these courts differs.
Generally, before a criminal defense attorney can practice in a state court, the attorney must pass a Law School Admission Council-administered admission test, attend an approved law school, and then sit for a bar examination in the state where the court is located. Each state has a bar admission agency that determines the eligibility requirements for attorneys that wish to practice law in their court system. Once an attorney passes a state's bar examination and is sworn in by that state's bar association, this attorney is allowed to appear before any of the state's trial or appellate courts.
On the other hand, if you are charged in a federal criminal case, your criminal defense attorney is required to be admitted into the practice of law before the particular court where the case was filed. Note that these attorneys must already be licensed to practice law by a state bar association. Federal courts like the United States Southern District Court of Texas allow attorneys that have been licensed by any bar association in the country. Others like the United States Northern District Court of California and the United States Southern District Court of Ohio accept only attorneys that were sworn in by their respective state bar associations. Similarly, the United States Western District Court of Missouri accepts attorneys that have either been licensed by the Missouri State Bar or have been sworn to practice before the United States District Court for Kansas.
Depending on the court where your case is filed, you can confirm the licensing status of your criminal defense attorney via online directories provided by the American Bar Association and the United States Federal Courts.
What Kind of Criminal Defense Work Do You Handle?
Before retaining the services of a criminal defense attorney near you, it is always a good idea to make sure that the attorney specializes in handling the type of criminal offense that you have been charged with. Criminal offenses are broadly categorized as felonies or misdemeanors. Felonies are generally offenses that are punishable by imprisonment of more than one year, while misdemeanors are generally punishable by fines, imprisonment of not more than one year, or both. A wide range of criminal offenses fall under these categories, and they can be sub-categorized based on the type of crime that was committed:
- Personal criminal offenses: these are offenses that arise from criminal acts that result in the physical or mental harm of a person. Examples of personal criminal offenses are homicide, child abuse, domestic abuse, arson, assault and battery, rape, and kidnapping.
- Property criminal offenses: these are offenses that result in the loss of a person's property. Most theft crimes fall into this category. Examples include shoplifting, auto theft, robbery, burglary, and larceny. In some cases, property crimes may also result in the physical or mental harm of a person.
- Inchoate criminal offenses: inchoate criminal offenses are offenses where a criminal act was initiated, a substantial step towards committing the crime was taken, but the criminal act was not completed. These types of offenses also include acts that helped in the commission of a crime. Aiding and abetting is a common example of this type of criminal offense.
- Statutory criminal offenses: these are criminal offenses that are prohibited by federal or state statutes. Drug crimes, alcohol-related crimes, and traffic offenses generally fall under this category.
- Financial criminal offenses: these are criminal offenses that involve the deception or defrauding of another person for monetary gain. Examples include blackmail, fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering.
How Long Have You Been in Practice?
Considering the fact that being convicted of a criminal charge can have long-lasting negative impacts on your life, it is always a good idea to retain the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney near you that has handled several similar cases. These attorneys generally have a better knowledge of the criminal justice system than their colleagues that have less work experience and they can quickly notice any flaws or weak points in the case that has been built against you. Experienced criminal defense attorneys also have a better working relationship with prosecutors, judges, law enforcement offices, and other personnel, and this can go a long way towards getting you a lighter sentence or a suitable plea bargain.
Find out the number of years that your attorney has been licensed to practice law and how many of these years have been spent practicing criminal defense law. This information is usually displayed on the websites of many law firms, but you can also directly ask. Per the American Bar Association's recommendations, you should also request a breakdown of your attorney's practice and confirm that this attorney has handled a high volume of cases that are similar to yours.
Do You Charge Fixed or Hourly Fees?
Criminal defense attorneys typically charge an hourly fee for their services and this usually costs around $100 - $800 per hour. The cost of hiring a criminal defense attorney near you will depend on several factors, which include:
- The type of criminal offense committed
- The seriousness of the criminal offense committed
- The probable complexity of the case
- The amount of time spent on criminal discovery
- The attorney's level of experience
- Whether or not the case goes to trial
Under some circumstances, a criminal defense attorney may charge a flat fee to handle a case regardless of the number of hours spent on the case. However, because it is difficult to accurately measure how long a criminal case will last, many criminal defense attorneys rarely utilize this method. The attorneys that charge fixed fees mostly only do so for relatively minor misdemeanor charges like drunk driving. Flat fees can cost between $1,000 and $2,000. Note that paying a flat fee does not automatically guarantee a favorable outcome in your case. Also, attorneys that charge these fees usually include a clause that allows them to charge you extra fees if the case ends up going to trial.
Whether you are charged an hourly fee or a flat fee, many criminal defense attorneys will require an upfront retainer fee before they begin working on your case. If you are being charged by the hour, it is a good idea to request regular statements from your attorney that show how much time has been spent on the case, the amount of work that has been done so far, and how much of your retainer is left. You should also find out whether your attorney prefers physical methods of payment like checks, money orders, and cash, or digital methods like mobile wallets and credit or debit cards.
Do You Charge for an Initial Consultation?
Many criminal defense attorneys near you would offer free initial consultations. Initial consultations are a very important step in the process of hiring a criminal defense attorney because they allow these attorneys to evaluate the case and come up with possible defense strategies. They also serve to build a rapport between you and your attorney. Any information shared during this consultation is usually bound by attorney-client privilege, and so you should always let your criminal defense attorney know the relevant details of the case at this time. This includes the details of the event that led to your arrest and factors that might influence the outcome of the case, like whether you have a previous criminal record. At the end of the consultation, you are given the option of retaining the services of the criminal defense attorney. It is at this stage that you will be informed of the attorney's fees, as well as the next steps to take in your criminal defense strategy.
How Do You Keep Clients Informed about Their Case?
Criminal defense attorneys are ethically required to keep their clients informed of the status of an ongoing criminal case. This includes promptly notifying them of any new decisions or changes regarding the case, providing regular updates on the case's status, and responding to any requests for information from the client.
Always find out how your criminal defense attorney communicates with clients and work out a reasonable schedule for doing so with you. Specify a particular time during which you should be given updates on the case, whether daily, weekly, or even monthly. Note that regardless of this schedule, your criminal defense attorney is required to inform you immediately there is any serious change in the status of your case. It is also a good idea to work out a preferred method of communication. This can be in-person meetings, or via electronic means like emails, texts, phone calls, and video calls. Finally, find out whether any calls or messages you send to your criminal defense attorney will be received directly or routed through secretaries, paralegals, or legal assistants.
Who Will Actually Do the Work?
It is always important to know who will do the actual work in the handling of your criminal defense case. Generally, law firms including criminal defense law firms near you, typically employ paralegals and legal assistants to aid licensed attorneys in handling cases. The specific duties of these paralegals and legal assistants vary by law firm, but they generally include carrying out the research needed for the case, taking statements from witnesses, and preparing any legal documents and letters required for the case. Regardless of the duties assigned to these individuals, their activities must always be supervised by a licensed attorney in the firm. Note that paralegals and legal assistants are not licensed law practitioners, therefore, they cannot give legal advice, accept or reject cases, set fees for clients, or argue cases in court.
In addition to paralegals and legal assistants, your criminal defense strategy may also require your attorney to employ the services of a criminal defense investigator to gather evidence that can be used for your trial. It is advisable to find out if the cost of paying this investigator, as well as any paralegals or legal assistants that may be involved in your case, is included in your retainer fee or whether you will be billed separately for their services.
Can You Provide References from Former Clients?
Your criminal defense attorney should be able to provide references from clients that they have helped with cases that are similar to yours, and perhaps clients near you. These references go a long way in assuring you of the attorney's reputation and increase your level of trust. Contact these past clients and get their opinion on the criminal defense attorney. Some attorneys include testimonials from past clients on their law firm websites. You can also get reviews by searching the attorney's name online or utilizing websites like Better Business Bureau and Google Review. It is also a good idea to watch available videos that show the attorney trying cases, to get an idea of the attorney's courtroom demeanor and competence.
What Is Your Success Rate?
Success rates are relative and they typically depend on the type of case. For example, being acquitted and having all the charges filed against you dropped is usually considered a successful end to a criminal case. Alternatively, you can also consider it a successful outcome if you are offered a plea deal that involves spending less time in jail than is typically required for the charge against you. Therefore, it is important to let your criminal defense attorney know your desired outcome for the case and find out how often this attorney achieves this outcome. The easiest way to do this is by directly asking your criminal defense attorney. Note that many attorneys do not keep records of this information. However, every criminal defense attorney should be able to give you general details of what their win-loss history is.
Also, trial courts generally keep publicly accessible records of criminal court cases, and you can contact the jurisdiction or courthouse where a majority of the cases tried by your attorney are heard to get information on this attorney's track record. Note that the availability of this information varies by courthouse and you may also be required to pay a fee before obtaining these records. Finally, you can also find out a criminal attorney's success rate by contacting past clients near you and asking if they are satisfied with the way their case was handled or by searching online for the outcomes of similar cases that your criminal defense attorney has tried.
When Should I Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney?
The sixth amendment of the Constitution of the United States grants any person accused of a criminal offense the right to be defended by an attorney. The ideal time to hire a criminal defense attorney near you is as soon as you are accused of committing a crime or find out that you are being investigated for allegedly committing one. If you cannot do this, then you should hire a criminal defense attorney as soon as you are arrested.
Retaining the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney at the early stages of your criminal case offers you a great deal of legal protection. Depending on the stage of the investigation, your attorney can negotiate a complete dismissal of the case before any charges are formally brought against you. Your criminal defense attorney can also negotiate your speedy release from custody and prepare you for your arraignment before a judge.
What Are the Typical Qualifications Held by a Criminal Defense Attorney?
Like all other attorneys, criminal defense attorneys are required to be bachelor's degree holders that have completed three years of law school and successfully passed the bar examination of the state that they intend to practice in. Although there are no mandatory majors for the bachelor's degree that an attorney can obtain, criminal defense attorneys generally take courses that build analytical reasoning, critical thinking, investigation and research skills, and communication skills. Some criminal defense attorneys also obtain board certification from organizations like the National Board of Trial Advocacy and the National College for DUI Defense.