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What You Can Expect from the Best Criminal Defense Lawyer
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By FindLaw Staff | Reviewed by Bridget Molitor, JD | Last updated May 08, 2020
If you're looking at prison time or a hefty fine, it's a good idea to look into hiring the best criminal defense lawyer possible. You may have the ability to get a court-appointed lawyer if your income qualifies.
Simply put: the legal system is designed to make competently representing yourself in criminal trials almost impossible. Even if you have an abnormally high IQ, the system does not work in your favor. Hiring an attorney to represent you in your criminal trial is a necessity.
This article discusses:
What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do?
What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do That I Can't Do?
What Do I Need to Do to Become a Criminal Defense Lawyer?
What Questions Should I Ask a Lawyer?
How Do I Find a Good Criminal Defense Lawyer?
What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do?
Because no criminal case is exactly like another, criminal defense lawyers are trained to pick out the parts of each case that make them unique.
In essence, they use their knowledge to find subtle evidence and reasons why you should win the case.
Also, the best criminal defense lawyer for you may be able to spot certain arguments and factors that could mitigate or even negate any potential crime. Even if you are guilty and the evidence is against you, they may be able to help you reduce fines and jail time.
Daily Responsibilities of a Criminal Lawyer
The day-to-day of being an attorney might not seem glamorous. Generally, it involves:
Contacting clients through email, phone calls, video calls, or in-person meetings
Reading case documents, evidence, and statutes (laws)
Taking notes on what would be helpful for the case
Forming a strategy for the case
While these activities may seem boring, they are the essential building blocks to making a strong case.
Criminal attorneys often spend months preparing for a case. The preparation can take much longer than actually being in the courtroom. This way, when the case goes to court, things can move as quickly as possible, and there are no surprises in the case.
What Specific Work Does a Criminal Lawyer Do That I Can't Do?
After the research and strategy are done, a criminal defense lawyer has many jobs. While in court, they will call witnesses in your defense and cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses.
They need to be dynamic and trustworthy, explain complex topics to a jury, and be prepared to discuss any aspect of the case. And this is just the beginning of the tasks ahead of them.
Specialties and Duties: Plea Bargains
Your criminal defense attorney may work with you and the prosecutor to negotiate a "plea bargain."
A plea bargain can reduce your potential sentence or eliminate some of the charges brought against you. However, prosecutors are often unwilling to negotiate with defendants that represent themselves.
Specialties and Duties: Sentencing
Your attorney will figure out a good sentencing program for your situation.
If you're found guilty, your criminal defense attorney may be able to change your sentence. Often, they are changed in a way that would prevent you from winding back in the criminal justice system.
For instance, instead of going to prison for ten months for a drug possession conviction, your criminal defense attorney may suggest a prison sentence of six months and then four months in a drug treatment facility. This approach aims to help you with the drug problem that landed you in trouble in the first place.
Specialties and Duties: Case Outcomes
As hard as it might be to hear, an attorney has the experience and training to provide you with a reality check.
Defense lawyers know what's going on much better than you will during your criminal trial. They also can predict how a case is going and what the judge or jury's outcome may be.
Your defense attorney has the advantage of:
Remaining objective throughout a proceeding
Offering realistic insights into how the trial is actually going
These assessments and reality checks are often essential when a criminal defendant is trying to decide whether or not to accept a prosecutor's plea bargain.
Specialties and Duties: Rules and Regulations
You can read books on criminal defense, but it takes years of study to grasp this area of law. Your attorney will point out important legal rules and regulations that you most likely wouldn't find on your own.
Many rules about criminal prosecutions are buried within regulations and laws, and even prior court decisions.
For example, if you were to represent yourself, you may never know if the search that the police conducted of your apartment was lawful or not. To know this, you must understand the many nuances and intricacies surrounding the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Specialties and Duties: State-Specific People and Systems
Most people will find it hard to navigate their case through the state legal system where the case is being heard.
There are written rules, such as the local rules of court, that must be obeyed and followed. There are also often many "unwritten rules" that go along with each jurisdiction.
For example, let's say only certain prosecutors can make and approve plea bargains. Your criminal defense lawyer may save you time (and maybe even jail time) by talking to the right person the first time.
Specialties and Duties: Consequences of Pleading Guilty
Your attorney can easily explain some of the "hidden costs" that come along with pleading guilty. Many people that represent themselves never think about the consequences of pleading guilty if it could lead to a shorter sentence.
For example, if you plead guilty, you may find it very hard to find a job once you've completed your punishment. An attorney will make sure you understand all your options before you plead.
Specialties and Duties: Handling Witnesses
Your attorney is trained in working with witnesses. They will be able to more easily gather evidence and statements from witnesses that are going to be called by the prosecution. Handling this without experience can be challenging for someone representing themselves.
Many witnesses, understandably so, refuse to give statements or information to people that were allegedly involved in a crime for fear of their own safety. However, these witnesses are often much more willing to talk to an attorney about their upcoming testimony.
Specialties and Duties: Handling Investigators and Experts
Part of the case will require finding and hiring investigators and expert witnesses.
Investigators can investigate not only the alleged crime but also the prosecution's witnesses. If these investigators can find evidence that would make a witness's testimony less believable, this could help your case tremendously.
Similarly, expert witnesses may be able to present evidence that would tend to show your innocence. They can also rebut evidence that the prosecution presents, making the prosecution's case less credible.
Reading Books Can't Replace Hiring a Criminal Defense Lawyer
Some criminal defendants seek to represent themselves by researching and reading books. However, reading books that spell out crimes, punishments, and defenses probably won't lead you to victory in your case.
As any seasoned lawyer will tell you, there's quite a vast difference between reading about the law and actually practicing the law in court.
Nothing Replaces Courtroom Experience
Understanding the ebbs and flows of a criminal trial can make the difference between winning and losing your case.
"Prosecutorial discretion" is a prime example of these ebbs and flows. Even the simple decision of what to charge a criminal defendant with can be complex. This can make all the difference in how a case is handled.
For example, what may appear to be a simple crime on paper could realistically be cast to be a multiple count indictment or a simple misdemeanor. Criminal defense lawyers are skilled at negotiating with prosecutors to figure out what counts to charge.
What Does Someone Need to Do to Become a Criminal Lawyer?
A degree in criminal law requires:
A four-year degree from an accredited university
Three years of school from an accredited law school
A Juris Doctor degree
Passing the bar exam in the state they wish to practice in
A license to practice from the state
Law students can appear in court while in school if a licensed attorney supervises them.
Many law students will also intern at a law firm before they are hired at a firm. Once hired, attorneys will likely shadow more experienced attorneys to learn the ropes before taking major cases.
Experienced attorneys will have years under their belt in and out of court. Still, newer attorneys are often cheaper to hire. Consider which level of experience better suits your needs.
What Questions Should You Ask a Criminal Lawyer?
Most criminal law attorneys don't handle every type of criminal case. There is a large difference between defending a DUI and defending a client charged with murder. It is crucial to hire an attorney who has experience in the charges you are facing.
You should also communicate well with the attorney and feel comfortable being honest with them, and the approach they will take in court. Not every attorney is a fit for every client.
You should ask a prospective attorney these types of questions:
How long have you practiced law?
Have you handled a case like this?
What percentage of your time is spent on this specific type of case?
Do you focus on a certain area of criminal law?
What information do you need/should I prepare for our first meeting?
How do you handle fees? (Hourly, on retainer, per case, payment plans, credit cards, etc.)
Get Professional Help From a Criminal Defense Attorney
As you can see, a good criminal defense lawyer can make your job easier. They can also improve your chances of winning your case or obtaining a more favorable plea bargain.
Even if you qualify for a court-appointed attorney, there's nothing keeping you from speaking with an experienced attorney to obtain a second opinion on your case.
If you're really set on representing yourself in court, you should, at the very least, retain the best criminal defense lawyer possible to act as a coach during your trial.
You can find an experienced criminal defense attorney near you and start by reading reviews and testimonials or having a free phone consultation to ask questions about your case.