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To choose the best lawyer or the first one who picks up the phone?

Nov 05, 2013 To choose the best lawyer or the first one who picks up the phone?

Over two decades ago, when I was a public defender lawyer plotting my next step of going into private criminal defense practice, I spoke with an already long established private practice criminal defense lawyer from Kentucky about whether he took calls at home. He happily answered that he does, and that he keeps the phone on his side of the bed to reduce the imposition on his wife when the phone rings in the middle of the night.

I bumped into the same lawyer earlier this year at another National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ meeting. I asked him if updated phone technology — for instance allowing silent pages from our office voicemail to our cellphones — had altered his practice of accepting phone calls at all hours of the day. With that same likable smile, he reported that nothing had changed.

I did not seek details about whether this lawyer’s Kentucky practice calls for round-the-clock court appearances for recently-arrested people. Where I practice criminal defense, Virginia court magistrates and Maryland court commissioners are the first people to make bail decisions when police do not simply write suspects summonses or citations for their alleged crime. Were I to accept phone calls while sleeping, the best thing I would be able to do or an arrestee with a Virginia magistrate is to call the magistrate while high-tailing my car to the magistrate’s office to put in my two cents about the arrestee’s background and why the arrestee should be released on his or her promise to appear in court, or on a low bond. Intervening is between receiving a phone call from the arrestee’s family or friends and my communicating with the magistrate will be my setting a fee and being paid for such work.

The magistrate may already have made a bail decision by the time the family or friends have already heard from the arrestee, have found a lawyer online or otherwise, have reached the lawyer, and have paid the lawyer (even if with a credit card that the lawyer may not be able to run until his or her staff comes into work for the morning). If the arrestee cannot afford the bond, if any, set by the magistrate, or wants to seek a more favorable bond, s/he can remain locked up until obtaining a bail hearing.

Consequently, I have my office voicemails go to my pager, except that I set the pager not to call me during my sleep hours, and to then call me with backup messages when I wake up. Also, I let my staff screen m calls when I am out of the office, so that I may focus on the court or other offsite work matter at hand.

I understand criminal defendants and their friends and family who hire the first quality lawyer they can reach after an arrest. So many unknowns exist, and the lawyer can answer questions to reduce the unknowns and to start a defense.

However, time is a commodity, and is best used patiently in seeking a lawyer. Just like one would not automatically hire the first doctor available to talk about engaging in cancer surgery, a similar level of time investment should be used in selecting a criminal defense lawyer.

Certainly, as with circumstance necessitating a visit to a hospital emergency room, sometimes an arrestee will need a lawyer right away for such matters as intervening when police try questioning the arrestee (but only the arrestee can assert his or her right to remain silent), seeking the arrestee’s immediate release, and advising an arrestee whether or not to agree to submit to a breath or blood test in a drunk driving case. However, just as one sometimes switches to a new doctor after the hospital emergency room visit, criminal defendants are free to obtain a different lawyer after turning to the first-available lawyer for the foregoing matters, to answer pressing questions or both.

I strongly believe that I give my clients the best defense when I give myself a good night’s sleep, work hard during the day, and provide myself some time during the week with my family, exercise and past times, as well as when I ask my staff to set potential clients for meeting times — usually for the same or next day — rather than taking every one of their calls right then and there.

When I do not take every single phone call on the spot from potential clients — rather than setting them in for appointments — I might lose a certain number of new clients along the way. That is okay. I am happy o see abundance of work spread among my qualified colleagues, and know that my foregoing approach best assures that I am giving my current clients the time and attention that they merit.

Certainly, plenty of criminal defendants hire me on the spot when they meet with me the first time, and even after I tell them that they have time to make a decision on a lawyer. At the same time, plenty also only hire me after giving themselves a chance to consider a number of lawyers. Criminal defendants generally only get one showtime in court,  so are wise to take their time in selecting a lawyer.

On a related note, I usually only quote my fee once I have a chance sufficiently to speak with my potential client and to review his or her case. Numerous potential criminal defense clients ask me for a ballpark fee when I know nothing other than the crime they are charged with. Talking about fees before meeting usually makes no more sense than calling a shoe store and asking how much a pair of shoes costs. The store probably sells dozens of shoe styles in dozens of price ranges. It is best that the customer simply visit the shoe store.

Of course, the decision on a criminal defense lawyer — as with a surgeon — is much more critical than choosing a pair of shoes. Nothing beats investing sufficient time in making that decision.

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