Top 10 things you should know about getting a lawyer
Deciding when you need a criminal lawyer can be confusing. For example, if you have to fight a parking or speeding ticket, or want to take someone to small-claims court, a lawyer typically is not required. However, if you are dealing with a more complex issue, such as getting your prior criminal record expunged or being charged with a crime after an arrest—you will need to secure an attorney. Lawyers are knowledgeable in navigating their respective areas of expertise.
I spoke with Natasha Johnson, JD, founder of Globalizing Gender (an international nonprofit organization that helps women fight for gender equality), on what to consider if you or a loved one is in such a predicament. Note: the tips below are considerations for when you are in the process of hiring a lawyer and are not in any way legal advice. Here’s what she recommends if you find yourself or a loved one facing criminal court:
- Prepare to hire a criminal attorney. All lawyers have specialties and/or areas in which they have practiced the most. Make sure that the lawyer you choose has practiced criminal law. You will need someone who is a litigator and can demonstrate success in criminal court.
- Consider a free attorney. If you cannot settle on an attorney right away (or cannot afford one), use the free attorney provided by the court for your initial hearing, or arraignment. According to the U.S. Constitution, you have the right to an attorney, especially if you are charged with a crime that carries a jail sentence. In New York, no-fee or state-appointed lawyers are called “18-B lawyers.” “Legal aid lawyer” is also another widely used term. These lawyers are sometimes overworked and might not be able to handle the nuances of your case. After the initial hearing, and if you can afford it, you might want to consider other representation; that is your option and legal right as a defendant.
- Research. All attorneys have records that are available to the public. Although it can be tedious, take the time to check if they have pending cases. You can also check your jurisdictions on the criminal-court website so you know whom you’ll be dealing with.
- Ask another lawyer. If you have had to use a lawyer in the past for another matter, ask if he or she can recommend someone. Lawyers are usually part of associations and alumni organizations, so chances are he or she might have a recommendation for you.
- The interview. When they are interviewing you to see if they can take your case, interview them. You want zealous representation. How far is your attorney willing to go within legal bounds for your justice? Important: Everything that you say to the attorney during the interview process is not privileged; therefore, at this point, you should not disclose anything specific about your case. Be very general in what you say until you secure the attorney with the necessary paperwork and he or she is retained—that is when confidentiality begins.
- Do not work with any lawyer who is asking for money up front. You should know what the fees are before you sign any paperwork. Also, how your case turns out should never, ever be part of your fee.
- Make sure the attorney has the same ideologies that you have. Look at the attorney’s website. You need to have an idea of what his or her arguments might be. Since your case is against the district attorney (DA), you want to make sure that your attorney is well versed on any substantive issues. Are there political implications that your case might bring up? For example, if your black teen is being accused of a crime and was also assaulted by the police, what are your attorney’s views on police brutality? Has he ever filed a countersuit in civil court? Does she know the particular DA’s views on police brutality or have an opinion on relevant issues, such as #blacklivesmatter? Ask questions hypothetically. Literally say, “Hypothetically, if my teenager . . .” Answers to these types of questions will give you insight.
- Be empowered. It might be difficult to feel empowered given the situation, but you are in a position to do all that you can to create the best legal defense possible. Breathe, do relaxation exercises, and stay focused on your goal.
- Be honest. Especially once you sign the affidavit and have secured information with your legal counsel, it is important to tell the truth, even if there is an issue of culpability. Criminal attorneys are trained to defend against those situations. An effective strategy cannot be developed if the attorney has to protect against your omission of facts.
- Be aware of quick plea deals. Be open to considering pleas, but you do not want a lawyer who will go for a plea first. You may not like this, but the state will always work hard to build its case against you. The cases against you or your loved one will have a primary offense and several smaller offenses to go along with it. Unless you are absolutely innocent, know that the state, in all likelihood, will build the case and try to expedite the process. If the DA offers a plea outright, it may be because the state doesn’t have a strong case.
Tanisha Christie is an interdisciplinary performing artist and filmmaker. After years of working at the nexus of arts, media, social justice, and healing, she is currently finishing her master of social work (clinical specialization) at Hunter College in New York City. A child of a Solo Mom, she loves to ride her bike to the beach.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.