Criminal Attorney – FAQ

  • How can I get a court to appoint a lawyer for me?

  • Do I need a lawyer at my arraignment?

  • How can I find a private defense lawyer?

  • How much will hiring a private lawyer cost?

  • Can I represent myself in a criminal case?

  • Can I change lawyers if Im unhappy with the one representing me?

  • Are lawyers available for defendants who can’t afford to pay for one?

How can I get a court to appoint a lawyer for me?

Generally, a court-appointed lawyer has to be requested. The request usually happens at the bail hearing or arraignment when the accused is formally advised of the charges against them and are asked to plead to them. If you don’t specifically request the judge to appoint you a lawyer, then one won’t be assigned to you automatically. Even though you have the legal right to a lawyer, you must typically express your need for one to the court.

Additionally, courts typically only provide lawyers for people who can’t afford to retain their own legal representation. This typically requires evidence in the form of financial documents showing your incapability of hiring an attorney. After you have made your request and provided the needed proof, certain courts will assign you an attorney right away and continue with your arraignment. On the other hand, other judges will take time to review the documents and approve your economic situation, so it might be a while before knowing your eligibility to have a court-assigned lawyer.

Every state or county has its rules about who is eligible for a cost-free attorney. However, the general rule provides that if you’re declared indigent, and there’s a high chance of a conviction, the court has to appoint free legal representation for you.

There may also be a situation where your income isn’t enough to retain a lawyer, but not low enough to make you qualify for the court to appoint you an attorney. In a case like this, the court might declare partial indigency. Partial indigency allows you to have a court-assigned lawyer, even though the court will request you to compensate the county or state for a fraction of the legal representation costs.

Do I need a lawyer at my arraignment?

During an arraignment, you’re entitled to have your lawyer present. This means you can wave your right and opt not to be represented. But this is not recommended. Since it will be your first time before the judge and you’ll be responding to the charges against you, a lawyer can be essential in navigating through this process for you.

In case you are capable, you want to hire a lawyer before the arraignment and allow them adequate time to reach out to the prosecution, if possible since the advantage can be significant. You must be selective and retain an attorney you trust. This is because not every attorney you hire before arraignment reaches out to the DA, conducts initial investigations, and fights to have the DA not to bring charges or file reduced charges.

How can I find a private defense lawyer?

Several resources are available to help defendants find private defense lawyers that will handle their legal issues. Before hiring an attorney, you need to ask questions and do your research. A lawyer helps to protect your legal rights during each step of your criminal case. You would need help from a skilled criminal defense attorney since the consequences of the criminal charges against you may be severe and bear long-term effects. The legal process is undoubtedly overwhelming. Having the right attorney helps alleviate the stress involved and guides you towards achieving the best possible results.

Ideas of how you can find a competent lawyer include:

  • Asking for recommendations from friends and family members who might have needed a lawyer to work with previously.

  • Asking for referrals from other attorneys. If you currently work or worked with a lawyer in a different aspect of the law, ask him/her if he/she could refer you to a criminal law lawyer. For instance, a trust & estate lawyer you hired to write your will could refer you to a competent criminal defense attorney.

  • Checking with the bar association in your state. A lawyer must be a member of the state bar for him/her to practice law in that state. Usually, the state bar association can avail to the public information about hiring a lawyer.

  • Search on the internet for a defense lawyer near you.

  • You could visit a courthouse near you and sit in a few hearings. If there’s a lawyer who impresses you by the way they argue their points, ask for their card once the hearing ends, then call them to schedule an appointment.

  • Attorney referral services are also another information source. However, the standards of these services vary significantly. Certain attorney referral services screen lawyers carefully and list the ones with specific qualifications and a particular experience level only. Others list any lawyer in good terms with the bar association, which maintains attorneys’ liability insurance. Prior to choosing an attorney referral service, inquire about their conditions for listing a lawyer, and how thoroughly attorneys are screened.

As mentioned earlier, researching different lawyers and collecting plenty of information about the one you may retain is critical. However, certain legal matters don’t allow for much time to perform lengthy research. All in all, when you hire a good lawyer, a unique confidential relationship is created. Essentially, this means all communications and discussions between you and the lawyer are secret.

How much will hiring a private lawyer cost?

Criminal defense lawyers do not all charge a fixed rate. Therefore, the answer to this question isn’t definite. Attorney’s fee varies based on several factors. The most critical ones of them include:

  • The lawyer’s skills and experience: Generally, a less-experienced lawyer sets a lower fee than a more experienced one.

  • The severity of the crime: Most lawyers charge expensively for felonies compared to misdemeanors since felonies subject defendants to greater punishments and will more likely involve much work and effort for the lawyer.

  • Geography: Just like various services cost a lot more in more populated areas of the state compared to others, the same is true for attorneys.

Other factors include:

  • The period the attorney spends in the criminal discovery process

  • How complex the legal matters in your case are

  • The delegation of duties to paralegals or law clerks

  • Whether your case proceeds to trial

  • Whether the lawyer charges by the hour or a flat fee

Even though rare because no two cases are the same, certain lawyers may opt to charge a flat rate for specific cases. For instance, a lawyer might charge a flat rate of between $1,000 and $3,000 to render his/her services if it’s a simple misdemeanor case. Another instance where a lawyer can charge a flat rate is in cases of speeding cases, where the lawyer might have a fixed cost for representing defendants charged with simple moving violations. However, keep in mind that there is no guarantee that you will obtain favorable results for your case when it comes to flat-rate arrangements.

Additionally, most lawyers won’t agree to flat rates because of how varying the criminal process can be. A lawyer might also include a condition in their flat range arrangement that permits them to raise the fee if the case goes to trial.

Most lawyers want a substantial percentage of or all the money paid beforehand. Contingency costs (where the attorney is paid only when and if they win the case) aren’t permitted when it comes to criminal cases.

Can I represent myself in a criminal case?

Self-representation isn’t a good idea, but it does happen and for several reasons. For instance, it could be difficult for a defendant to justify compensating for a lawyer’s time to defend a minor offense like a traffic violation. However, the more severe a crime is and the penalties, the more critical it is for you to consult a defense attorney.

Here are various considerations that you should note before deciding to represent yourself:

The prosecution usually offers a first-time offender of a non-violent crime the same standard deal as other offenders. Note that a jail sentence for a minor offense is, at times, inevitable. And when convicted, you may be subject to other hidden costs like difficulties securing employment or higher insurance rate charges. For a repeat offender, the consequences are generally more severe. Thus, you wouldn’t want to take chances by representing yourself.

A judge will treat self-representation litigations similarly as they treat lawyers. This means if you decide to represent yourself, the judge will expect you to:

  • Comply with all the deadlines

  • Appear in court for all hearings

  • Complete proper forms

  • Obey court rules

  • Understand legal language

  • Abide by all the rules of evidence

  • Speak on your behalf in a formal setting

If you choose to represent yourself, you should be able to do all these or expect your case to be negatively impacted.

Can I change lawyers if I’m unhappy with the one representing me?

The short answer is yes. However, courts rarely agree to an accused’s request to change a court-appointed attorney. Disagreements between defendants and public defenders over strategic matters are common but are seldom a reason to switch legal representation. However, suppose the case at hand is serious, and the disagreements between a defendant and an attorney are severe that it’s impossible to maintain a professional relationship. In that case, the court may grant the request for a new lawyer. Attorney incompetence is another cause for an alteration of legal representation, but it rarely occurs.

On the contrary, defendants who retain private counsel can fire them any time they want without a judge’s approval. You don’t have to justify your action of firing your counsel. After firing an attorney, you can retain another or, if possible, represent yourself.

However, note that even though you are free to change lawyers, there could be significant consequences that come with it. For example, apart from paying your new attorney, you still will be required to compensate the original counsel whatever share of the charges they had earned. Additionally, the new attorney may need to move for a continuance to have ample time to prepare for the case. This means if you are in jail, it will increase the period that you remain there.

Your entitlement to switch attorneys is capped by the DA’s right to have cases move as scheduled. For example, if you wish to alter lawyers a day before trial, your new legal counsel will likely agree to take your case if the court delays the trial so he/she can prepare adequately. The prosecution may not agree to the delay, perhaps because witnesses will not be present to testify on the new date. In this situation, the court will likely deny your right to switch attorneys.

Are lawyers available for defendants who can’t afford to pay for one?

  • Are lawyers available for defendants who can’t afford to pay for one?

Under the protection of the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, a criminal defendant generally has a right to legal representation if he/she can’t afford an attorney on their own. This means the judge will appoint an attorney to represent the defendant free of charge or at a cost he/she can manage to pay.

If arrested, you should be advised of your right to legal counsel. A lawyer is generally appointed during the initial hearing, and most commonly, it will be a public defender. A public defender is a fully licensed attorney whose duty is to represent defendants who have no means of representing themselves in criminal cases. Since they appear every day in courts, public defenders have gained much experience. And since they work every day with persons of similar characters, they have learned the prejudices and personalities of police officers, judges, and prosecutors, which is critical info a lawyer ought to know when evaluating a case or conducting a trial.

Note that even if you cannot afford an attorney, you still have the legal right to effective representation and counsel of your choice. Therefore, even when you have a problem with the public defender assigned to you, the court may appoint a so-called ‘conflict attorney.’ Conflict attorneys are private lawyers that have volunteered to help the court in situations like this. Rules for being assigned a ‘conflict lawyer’ vary from one jurisdiction to the next. Therefore, ask your local attorney for info on these programs if you consider pursuing this.