What to Look for When Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney

November 29, 2018

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

When you get arrested or are being investigated for a crime, one of the first concerns you may have is who will be representing you in court. If you don’t know a lawyer, it may be overwhelming trying to find and hire an attorney who can handle your type of case. Here, we’ll discuss some of the factors you should consider when hiring a criminal defense attorney.

The fact of the matter is that the right attorney for you may not be the right attorney for someone else. At the end of the day, the most important part of the attorney-client relationship is trust. Remember that you are hiring someone you need to trust with not just your money, but also your freedom.


Size of Law Firm

Some large law firms have criminal defense groups within the firm. They have a group of attorneys who handle all of the firm’s criminal defense cases. These types of law firms often have attorneys with law degrees from ivy-league schools and can provide the man-power to handle large, complex criminal cases. However, these large firms may sometimes feel impersonal and may have large caseloads that keep them from giving you as much attention as you may need.

Particularly in the criminal defense field, you also may find a solo practitioner who operates his or her own law firm. Such practitioners often group together and share office space, staff, and resources, but maintain independent law firms. These attorneys often have smaller caseloads and can provide you more one-on-one attention.

In the middle of these two options are small or mid-size law firms, such as Pappalardo & Pappalardo, who can offer you the best of both worlds. Smaller firms can provide to clients more attention than the big law firms, yet they have the resources and man-power for more complex legal matters.


Location & Jurisdiction

Many times, hiring someone who frequently practices in the court in which your case is pending is an important factor in finding the attorney who is right for you. An attorney who often practices in the court where your case is pending will know the prosecutor, the judge, and other members of the criminal justice system such as the police and probation officers. This attorney will be able to advise you about what to expect as your case goes forward, based on his or her experience with that particular court.

For example, an attorney from New York City may not know about the internal policies of the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. In misdemeanor cases, Westchester has an “open file” discovery process which is not employed in New York City. In contrast, an attorney who solely practices in Westchester may not realize that when he or she requests a felony hearing in New York City, a prosecutor there will be more likely to put the case into the grand jury than a prosecutor in Westchester would be.


Experience & Reputation

There are some great young attorneys out there. On the flip side, there are some bad experienced attorneys. You should look for an attorney who not only has experience with handling the type of case you have, but also an attorney who is enthusiastic about handling your case. A general practitioner or a civil attorney may say they can help you, but make sure they really are prepared to handle your criminal case, as your freedom may be at stake.

You should also check what an attorney’s reputation is in the community. If you know anyone who works for the courts or in criminal justice, ask if they know the attorney. Further, you should consider whether the attorney has been subject to any professional discipline. You can find information about an attorney’s disciplinary record online on the Office of Court Administration’s website.


What If I Want to Change Attorneys?

Sometimes, you may hire an attorney only to find out down the road that it’s not the right fit. You are entitled to the defense attorney of your choice. It is best to make a change as soon as possible, as other attorneys may be hesitant to take your case if they think they can’t undo the work your previous attorney has already done.

Any attorney worth their salt will tell you to meet with a few attorneys before making a decision on who you’ll hire. If an attorney tries to scare you into immediately signing a retainer agreement or paying an exorbitant amount of money before you’ve had sufficient time to think about your choice, beware.

If you feel that something really improper has occurred, you may want to consider filing a complaint with the Grievance Committee. This can include complaints about the way an attorney has handled your case, whether the attorney failed to communicate with you, or if you feel there was mismanagement of funds or legal fees.