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If you’ve been charged with a criminal offense, finding and hiring the right criminal defense attorney is crucial to the outcome of your case. There are multiple factors to consider when deciding who to hire. The wrong decision could have disastrous consequences. When shopping around for a criminal defense attorney, cost is likely to be a consideration. While you should be conscious of your budget, the high stakes involved with criminal charges mean cost should not be the primary factor in your decision making. By securing the representation best suited to your case, you can significantly improve your chances of a favorable outcome.

Ask around

If this is your fist time seeking legal representation, you might not know where to begin. While you might have never sought the help of an attorney before, you’re likely to know others who have. Referrals from friends, family, or others you trust are a useful tool when it comes to finding the right attorney for your unique situation.

“About a quarter of my clients are referrals from other clients or other firms, people with whom I have worked, been on a bar association committee, or am friends with and they know my work,” says Patricia Browne Holmes, a white-collar criminal defense attorney and the managing partner of Riley Safer Holmes and Cancila LLP. “Referrals are extremely important to a law firm’s business. Often other firms may have conflicts or may need lawyers to represent various witnesses in ongoing matters.”

Perhaps you’ve worked with a lawyer while setting up your business or writing a will. Even if he or she doesn’t handle criminal matters, that attorney might know of respected peers working in that area and could assist you through a referral.

Research your options

Once you’ve been given a few names to work with, do your research. Multiple online ratings and peer review sites provide valuable information about an attorney’s standing among his or her peers. You can also seek out information regarding professional memberships, affiliations, and past won and lost cases. 

Board certification is another mark of professional achievement and rigor that you might look to when considering hiring a defense attorney. “It’s a long and involved process to be board certified,” says Jack Hickey of Hickey Law Firm. “You take an all-day exam, which takes weeks and weeks to study for, you have to get letters from judges and attorneys supporting you and vouching for you, and you have to have a background check and really prove that you have this experience. That’s what I would look for.”

Set a face-to-face meeting with each lawyer

After narrowing down your choices to one or two attorneys, it’s time to meet the candidates. This person is going to be helping you with a particularly serious and personal problem. In addition to being comfortable with your chosen attorney, you should feel confident that he or she is suited to your particular needs. An in-person meeting is the only way to ensure that an attorney is competent and that the two of you have the right chemistry. For this reason, many criminal defense attorneys offer a free consultation. Be sure you arrive prepared to make the most of your meeting. The Contra Costa County Bar Association recommends you do the following:

  • Bring relevant notes and documents

  • Relay your situation honestly

  • Ask questions about the process

  • Discuss costs and fee structures

  • Listen closely

Consider costs

Securing the help of an attorney in a criminal matter can be expensive, and not every attorney will charge you for their services in the same way. It’s important to be fully aware of—and comfortable with—your attorney’s fee structure. Some criminal defense attorneys charge an hourly fee, while others offer a flat fee. For example, a DUI defense attorney might offer representation for $1,500, no more and no less. 

The advantage to such a structure is that if things get complicated, you could end up saving thousands. If the process is quick and easy, however, you might feel that you overpaid. You should also discuss whether you will be responsible for court and filing fees, or the costs of hiring an expert witness.

Other lawyers charge an hourly fee. Hourly fees vary widely, depending on the attorney’s experience level, their firm’s reputation, their practice, and their metro area. An associate in a smaller city like Burlington could charge $150 an hour, while a partner in New York might charge as much as $750. Additionally, hourly fee attorneys could charge a retainer (similar to a down payment) for their services. The advantage here is that you only pay for the time you use. Of course, if the case becomes more complicated than expected, you could end up paying a lot more than planned.

If you find that securing adequate representation poses a significant financial burden to you, seek help from a legal aid service in your area.

It’s Never Too Late

The attorney-client relationship is generally quite personal. You may be discussing intimate details of your life and sharing things you aren’t particularly proud of. If you don’t feel comfortable with your chosen attorney, there is a good chance that you will be equally uncomfortable with the outcome. By following the steps above, you can make the right choice the first time. But if you’re reading this after the fact and fear that you’ve already made the wrong choice, it’s never too late to make a change.