What should I consider when hiring a criminal defense lawyer?

When facing criminal charges, one of the most important decisions that a person makes is hiring the right criminal defense lawyer.  The decision can impact whether or not the person goes to jail and whether or not a criminal record will prevent the person from moving forward in the future.  As with any profession, there are good attorneys and there are bad attorneys, and some attorneys are better than others.  Some attorneys are good salesmen or saleswomen and tell a client what the client wants to hear just to land the case and get paid.  The good attorneys are honest and will give the client a fair assessment of the case.  How you do distinguish the good from the bad?  The good attorneys should have a track record of success over the years, and success can be measured by factors such as year of experience, client and professional peer reviews, professional awards and association affiliations, and does the attorney appear to be a good person.

1. Experience

Criminal defense attorney v. jack-of-all-trades:  You should be hiring a lawyer that has extensive experience in handling criminal defense cases.  Seems obvious.  However, many people hire a local family lawyer, or an attorney that only handles criminal defense cases part time.  By analogy, would you hire an electrician to do mechanical work on your car?  Then why would you hire a family law attorney to provide criminal defense representation.  If you needed heart surgery, would you want someone that had performed one brain surgery in the past?  The answer is clearly NO.  An attorney that is focused on criminal defense is normally more knowledgeable and experienced, and that experience often produces better results. You should also look to retain an attorney that has represented clients in the county in which the charges are being filed.  While the law is the same across the state of Pennsylvania, you want an attorney that knows the police, prosecutors, and judges.  “Knowing” the players involved in the system is not because it is a buddy system.  A good lawyer wants to know the opposition.  Why do sport teams scout their opponents?  They want to “know” the opponent and thereby exploit weaknesses and minimize strengths.  Same with criminal defense and lawyer work.  Knowing your competition helps obtain better results for a client.


2. Results – Case Wins

Does the attorney have a proven track record of winning cases?  In many situations, an attorney that has been practicing for a number of years should have a solid number of case wins that can be discussed with you. If the attorney is not winning cases, then why would you want to hire him?  Wins come in the form of not guilty verdicts at trial, having evidence suppressed at pretrial hearings, having convictions overturned on appeal, and even negotiating favorable plea offers.  When reviewing your case, an experienced attorney can often compare your case to other cases that were handled by the attorney, discuss the result that was obtained, and then explain a strategy that can be used in your case to try and obtain a similar result.

CAUTION: Be careful of attorneys that over-emphasize trial experience.  Remember, attorneys get paid more money to have trials.  The vast majority of cases, over 90%, are resolved in the pretrial phase of the case and do not end in a trial.  Trial experience sounds good because it implies that the attorney is aggressive and will fight for the client, but trial experience can also be show that the attorney is more concerned with getting paid a trial fee as opposed to resolving a case in the best way for a client.

3. Client Reviews

In the age of Google and Amazon, people look for reviews on everything that they purchase, from electronics to even small things like coffee makers and toasters.  When looking for an attorney, why would the process be any different.  A great way to determine whether or not an attorney is any good is to see what prior clients have to say.  A good attorney will assess the case with the client, set expectations for a resolution, and if the attorney delivers on those expectations, clients will be happy with the service provided and will leave positive reviews.  But reviews can also be manipulated.  Sadly, some attorneys have family and friends write reviews.  Good attorneys will have a track record or history of providing good results for clients, so the reviews should span years.  If you are reading reviews, you can see whether the reviews were all left over a short period of time, so you should question why there is not a history of providing good service.  The good criminal defense attorneys should have many positive reviews that are given over a relatively lengthy period of time.

4. Professional Associations & Accolades

What do other lawyers in the community and criminal defense field have to say about a particular lawyer?  Has the lawyer been nominated as a Rising Star or Super Lawyer? How is the attorney reviewed on websites like Avvo?  Is the attorney involved in criminal defense associations?  For example, Attorney Jason Dunkle  has been nominated as a Rising Star or Super Lawyer every year since 2011, is on the Executive Board of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (PACDL), and has many reviews from defense attorneys across the state of Pennsylvania.  If the lawyer is not respected or recognized by other criminal defense lawyers, or if that attorney is not associated with defense attorney organizations, then why would you hire that attorney?

5. Cost

Money is always a factor in selecting an attorney. Regrettably, the better attorneys will often cost more money.  Over the years, I have consulted with many clients that went cheap and learned the hard way that they received crap service for the money.  They got what they had paid for.  The problem is that it often costs more money to fix the mistake that it would have cost to pay the good attorney to handle the case from beginning to end.  And, in some situations, the case cannot be fixed. While many people say “I cannot afford a good attorney,” can you afford NOT to hire a good one.  Of course an attorney will say that you cannot afford to hire a cheap attorney.  However, if you get a bad resolution and end up in jail or with a criminal record, you may lose your job.  So you saved money by going cheap on the lawyer but then lost your job and now have no income, and because of the record, you cannot obtain another job.  Had you spent the money on the good attorney, you would have increased the probability of obtaining a better resolution to minimize the damage and possibly keep that job.  Good attorneys can guarantee that nothing bad will happen, but good attorneys will get the best resolution possible to minimize negative consequences.

6. Personality

Do you like the attorney as a person?  You should feel absolutely comfortable with an attorney before you retain them. The attorney will be your partner, ally, and friend throughout what is sometimes a contentious, scary experience. The attorney-client relationship is a partnership, and you must feel that your lawyer has all your interests at heart and will fight as hard as possible to achieve the best possible resolution.