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To choose a lawyer

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Many criminal defendants naturally wish to know an attorney’s fee — or at least a ballpark or fee range — over the phone or email before taking up to several hours to drive roundtrip to meet with the lawyer. Criminal cases often are scheduled for quickly-approaching court dates, and too many criminal defendants suffer by waiting until the last moment to obtain a lawyer.

Most potential criminal defense clients have a list of questions they wish to ask a potential lawyer. Following are some factors I would consider if I were in the shoes of the potential criminal defense client. Hopefully this list will illustrate the importance of looking beyond legal fees alone in choosing a lawyer, although one cannot pay for a lawyer with cash that one cannot find or borrow, either.

CHOOSING A LAWYER: Factors to consider.

Choosing a criminal defense lawyer can be as serious as choosing a doctor to perform surgery.

As you consider whom to hire as your lawyer, here are some items you might consider:

The lawyer’s fees. Most people do not rank low price as the most important factor in choosing a doctor. Should it be any different in choosing a lawyer to defend your liberty?

In any event, a lawyer should welcome inquiries about the factors s/he uses in calculating the fee. If the lawyer quotes a flat fee, what time estimates and other factors did the lawyer use in calculating the fee?

If an hourly rate is being quoted, to what extent will the lawyer cap the number of hours billed, or estimate the number of hours possibly needed for the work?

For basis of comparison, the Maryland federal trial court has listed the following as a general guidepost for the reasonableness of attorney hourly billing rates in litigation for recoverable attorney fees::

a. Lawyers admitted to the bar for less than five years: $150-$190.

b. Lawyers admitted to the bar for five to eight years: $165-$250.

c. Lawyers admitted to the bar for nine to fourteen years: $225-$300.

d. Lawyers admitted to the bar for fifteen years or more: $275-$400.

e. Paralegals and law clerks: $95-$115.

Source: Local Rules of the U.S. District Court, District of Maryland: Rules And Guidelines For Determining Attorneys’ Fees In Certain Cases,

The lawyer’s quality, dedication and experience. What can substitute for the experience of years of battle by a lawyer in criminal court? How does such experience help a lawyer to persuade effectively; handle difficult situations with the case, the judge, prosecutors and opposing witnesses; and find ways to minimize and reverse weaknesses in the client’s case?

How committed and capable is the lawyer to provide the client with first-rate service? How often, effectively, unhesitatingly and fearlessly does the lawyer take cases to trial? How effective is the lawyer at persuading and negotiating?

How much does the lawyer concentrate on criminal defense, and what motivated the lawyer to do so? Is the lawyer convinced that criminal defense is an honorable way to serve clients, the public, and the Constitution? Does the lawyer still get a thrill out of each battle and each victory for justice?

How well does the lawyer know the relevant law, and how well will the lawyer be conversant with the law, facts and arguments that apply to your case? Does the lawyer regularly read the relevant opinions issued by the appellate courts where the lawyer practices?

How accessible and devoted is the lawyer?  What efforts does the lawyer make to assure s/he is devoting sufficient time, effort and diligence in representing you? Will the lawyer stay with your case from beginning to end? Will the lawyer be fully available to communicate with you in person, by phone, and by email? Will the lawyer set the entire day aside for your bench trial date, and even more time as necessary for any jury trial?

How focused will the lawyer be with you in court? Will the lawyer be ready to handle all opportunities, challenges and curveballs to your advantage?

What do other people say about the lawyer?  What do the lawyer’s clients say about the lawyer on AVVO.com and elsewhere? How do the lawyer’s peers view the lawyer? Consider the source of the comments, of course.

What is your comfort level with the lawyer?  – Just as one wants to feel comfortable and confident in the doctor who will perform surgery, how comfortable and confident does the client feel with the lawyer?

How much does the lawyer value you, your views, and your knowledge? An attorney needs to work closely as a team with the client in fighting for justice. The lawyer’s law degree and bar license do not make the lawyer all-knowing; the client has a very important role and knowledge base in preparing and pursuing the defense.

– What are your lawyer’s writing skills? Litigation persuasion is accomplished orally, in writing, and often with both approaches. How well does your lawyer do both? How many trials has the lawyer handled to completion as the lead lawyer? How well does your lawyer handle pretrial motions practice? How many appeals has your lawyer handled, to include writing legal briefs and handling the pressure of sometimes rapid-fire questioning from a team of appellate judges?

 – Who else is on your defense team?  What is the quality and dedication level of the lawyer’s staff, and what is your comfort level with the staff?

What does your gut tell you? In addition to considering the above-listed factors, it is important to continue to trust your instincts in choosing a lawyer and to listen to your instincts while fighting alongside your lawyer. For that matter, how good are the lawyer’s instincts?