Hiring the Best Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer: Six Thoughts and Tips

Another day here in Atlanta, and another high-profile federal criminal case in the newspaper.  Although most of my work is doing federal criminal defense here in Atlanta, in Rome, Georgia (where the case in today’s paper is being handled) throughout Georgia and the rest of the country, I want to be clear: I am NOT involved in the case described in the attached article.  However, seeing the case got me thinking about advice for people who need to hire the very best federal criminal defense lawyer for themself, a family member or for a loved one.  Here are six thoughts and tips.

First (and last), experience is the key.  I’ve written and spoken to groups in the past about this, but it cannot be over-emphasized: federal criminal defense is a speciality.  Many truly excellent criminal defense lawyers are not skilled or schooled in the intricacies of handling a criminal case in federal court.   These otherwise very good attorneys are at a disadvantage when their client gets indicted by “the Feds.”  So, tip #1 is that clients and their families should make sure that the lawyer they are considering has a lot of experience in handling federal cases.

Second, does the lawyer seem to know what he or she is talking about when they describe the procedures and potential defenses? Let me be blunt: some lawyers are simply salesmen and saleswomen, they will say almost anything to make the sale (or get the case). Clients and their families need to listen carefully, to make sure that the lawyer sounds sensible and discusses the case and possible defenses.  Clients should be very concerned when a lawyer promises a certain outcome. “I can win this case easily, Mrs. Smith, you should hire me to defend your husband.”  I have a simple rule for clients: if a lawyer promises a result, walk out the door, for that lawyer is a liar.  No one, and I mean NO ONE, can promise a specific outcome of a federal criminal case.

Third, do some comparison shopping.  Call multiple lawyer who seem to have significant experience handling federal cases.  Look at their websites, ask them how many cases they have handled.  Lots of clients and their families ask a variation of “what is your winning percentage?”  It is a fair question, but the client and the family need to recognize some hard truths about “statistics and numbers.”  The Feds get to choose their cases, so they rarely take a case if they don’t feel they have lots of evidence.  The numbers change a bit from year to year, but nationwide it seems like the Feds win 93% of their cases.   However, these numbers can be very misleading.  For one thing, many of the cases that go to trial are individuals who have multiple prior offenses or face horrible mandatory penalties, and the Defendants often have no choice other than a trial, regardless of how strong the evidence might be.   As a result, the numbers get skewed in favor of conviction when the analysts include these dead-bang losers in the numbers.   Also, the conviction rate is for all federal cases.  A better question is what kind of odds are there for a conviction for this specific kind of federal criminal case under these set of facts.

Fourth, clients are justifiably concerned about the cost of legal fees.  Again, let’s be blunt.  Good lawyers cost a lot of money.  Good federal criminal defense lawyer cost even more.  And, a good federal criminal defense attorney who seems to have the experience and attitude to fight the feds can be really expensive.  I often tell prospective clients, that  even if they cannot afford the fees that I charge, they will basically throw their money away by hiring a “cheap” lawyer.  These are attorneys who will promise the moon, but who do not have the experience or temperment to do the case the right way.

Fifth, clients and their families need to look at the intangibles, and this can be the most difficult evaluation.  Does the lawyer seem like the right “fit” for the case.  Do you feel like this lawyer is the right person to stand up on that first day of trial to announce “ready for the defense, your honor”? Make sure that the lawyer is not just “selling”, but instead is truly the kind of person prepared to go into battle for your or your loved one.

Sixth, last, and first, experience is still the key.  I was a young lawyer once, I did some good work, but lawyers are really like good wine, they get better and better over time.

I hope no one reading this ever has to hire a  criminal defense lawyer to handle their federal case, but the truth is, some people will need to do so.  Consider these questions when going through this process.

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