A criminal charge against you can be a very scary thing; for one, it is one of the rare times you are in jeopardy of losing not only money to fines and fees, but your very liberty and freedom to live your life. Because of the high stakes in a criminal proceeding, it’s important you do your due diligence to find the very best representation possible to vigorously advocate for your interests; here are five important questions you need to ask your criminal defense attorney.
1. What is their fee structure?
Often referred to as a retainer, you need to know up front what your attorney’s fee structure looks like. According to James M. Burns, Attorney at Law, some attorneys will handle certain types of cases on a flat fee basis whereas others will charge an hourly rate, a portion of which is paid upon hiring and kept in trust to be billed at an hourly rate. Contingency fees are another type of fee structure many people are familiar with, but this is not allowed in criminal cases. Lawyers are barred by statute from charging criminal clients on a contingency basis, so beware of any firm that will claim to do so. In many firms it is becoming popular to delegate tasks that aren’t essential to the case to paralegals or legal clerks, if that is the case you should know what their hourly rates are as well.
2. What is their experience?
Not all criminal cases are created equal, and within the criminal law practice there are many attorneys who further specialize in specific practice areas. Felony trials are often very in depth and require a large amount of preparation time of part of the attorney; in contrast, many misdemeanor charges require less preparation and the penalties are less severe. Even within the world of felonies there is further specialization, and when facing a serious charge is it helpful to have an attorney experienced in your type of case. Another thing to keep in mind when inquiring into experience is how long the attorney has been practicing in that particular area. Statues can vary widely from state to state, and even from city to city, so it is good to know how well versed your lawyer is in your type of case in your area.
3. What is delegated to support staff?
With the busy schedule of your typical criminal defense attorney many tasks that are not considered essential to the case may be delegated to support staff such as legal clerks, paralegals, or legal secretaries. Support staff is essential to any functioning law practice, but it is good to keep yourself informed of who will be doing what work on your behalf. Certain tasks must be completed by an attorney and all work is ultimately reviewed by your lawyer, but knowing where the work is being done can be helpful particularly if you are paying an hourly rate.
4. What is their caseload?
The typical attorney maintains dozens of cases at any given time, which all vary in complexity. While a high caseload doesn’t immediately mean your lawyer can’t devote the necessary time to your case, it can indicate that a large portion of the work is delegated to support staff or contracted out to other attorneys. In many minor criminal matters this practice is inconsequential, but if you’ve been accused of a serious crime with a severe penalty you will want to know how much of their time your attorney will be able to devote to you.
5. Where did they go to law school?
A law degree is a law degree, sure, but many state bars are a close knit community of professionals who know one another. An attorney who isn’t active in their bar or known well in their legal community can be a liability when it comes to your interests. A lawyer who is well-regarded among their peers is an asset in any criminal case.
Any attorney worth hiring should be able to answer these questions happily and with ease so it’s wise to take the time to get to know the person fighting for your rights and your freedom.