Hiring a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer: Questions to Ask

Well, it’s Monday, and the phone is ringing (thank goodness) with calls from people who over the weekend decided that they or one of their loved ones REALLY needs a good federal criminal defense lawyer.  I am always glad to talk with people about actual or potential federal criminal cases, whether the matter is here in Atlanta, up in North Carolina (where the first caller’s case is from), New Hampshire (this morning’s second call) or somewhere else in the country where I sometimes go to help my clients.  When I had a few moments later today, I decided to put down some thoughts about this process and questions that people should ask lawyers (and themselves) when trying to decide whether to hire a particular federal criminal defense lawyer.

For starters, the first is not always the best.  Just because the first lawyer sounds good (or actually returned your call), that does not mean this is the right attorney for your case.  Also, clients need to remember that lawyers are like many doctors, we sometimes specialize.  Potential clients need to remember that just because an attorney calls him or herself a “criminal defense attorney”, that does not mean that this lawyer is the best fit for your case.  As I’ve written and spoken about on numerous occasions, there are many excellent attorneys who work in the State Court systems but who rarely take federal criminal matters.  There are many reasons for this, but potential clients facing a federal case likely are better served with someone who does federal cases as the majority of his or her work.

Now, here’s a shocker.  Sometimes, a few lawyers will stretch the truth (in other words LIE) when they are talking on the phone with a potential client.  They might tell a potential client that they’ve handled “lots” of federal cases, when in fact they’ve been to the federal building twice in their career.  Potential clients need to check up on this.  I suggest that clients ask the lawyer how many cases they have had in the past two years in federal court, that should be a good gauge of whether this attorney truly “handles” federal criminal cases.

Other questions arise from the type of federal criminal case that the potential clients is involved with.  There are specialists even among attorneys who only handle federal criminal cases.  Some lawyers only work on certain kinds of federal cases, like health care fraud.  Now, I have an opinion about these hyper-specialists.  On the one hand, they truly know the nuts-and-bolts of health care fraud, but sometimes these attorneys fall into the the “cannot see the forests for the trees” syndrome.  They are so specialized that they forget that the key is to see how the case appears to the regular person who likely will sit on a jury.  For my money, it is better to get a real crackerjack and tough federal criminal defense lawyer who handles an array of cases as opposed to a specialist.  I handle lots of different kinds of cases, and my opinion is that the best federal criminal defense lawyers regularly learn new areas of the law and fact patterns all the time.

Another question I hear from potential clients is whether I know the Judge, the prosecutor or the federal agents who are investigating the matter.  Some people think that there is an “inside” game, by which federal cases are handled behind the scenes based on personal relationships.  If that is true, it is something that people have hidden from me over the past 36 years.  My experience is that the best way to get the best result is the old fashioned tactic of hard work.   I try to keep up good relationships with prosecutors and judges, some I even call friends.  However, I have no illusion that such good relationships or friendships will have any impact on how a prosecutor or judge will do his or her job.  Instead, the best way to assure the best result is to outwork the other side.

Potential clients should also listen carefully to see if the lawyer is clear when discussing various aspects of the case.  Clear communication is the “sine qua non” (fancy Latin words meaning “the essential part of something”) of being a good criminal defense lawyer.  If the attorney is not clear when you are speaking with him or her on the phone, that is a good sign as to how he or she might do with a prosecutor, a Judge or a jury deciding the client’s fate and future.

One final thought and suggestion, and this is something I tell potential clients all the time (and is something I said to the fellow who called me this morning and who has a case in the northeastern part of the US). Clients should listen to their “gut” or whatever they call their internal dialogue.  Some people refer to this as their “intinct.”  I make it a regular practice to suggest that potential clients talk with at least one other, and perhaps more, federal criminal defense lawyers.  I tell them that after doing this, they should imagine that the lawyers with whom they spoke are arguing their case to a judge or jury.  The potential clients should then ask themselves one question: “Who is the attorney best suited to make that argument?” In other words, listen to their gut/instincts and follow that inclination.

For many people, money is the biggest consideration when deciding on which lawyer to hire.  That is such a large topic that I will come back to it in a later post.