This past Saturday afternoon I was reading Judge Gertner’s decision in United States v. James Hebshie that was issued on November 15, 2010 in which she vacated the defendant’s conviction on the basis that his trial counsel was ineffective. (Yes. I am that big of a nerd that I read judicial decisions on the weekend just for fun.) I was reminded that the unfortunate reality is that not all practicing lawyers are good ones.
Here are some things to watch for to make sure that the lawyer you get is a good one.
Public Defender v. Private Attorney
The decision in Henshie is a lesson to people that court appointed counsel may be the best lawyer for the job. Robert Muse and then his son Peter Muse were appointed by the Court to represent the defendant. Robert Muse went on to be appointed to a judgeship. Peter Muse is a truly remarkable attorney. A number of years ago, I personally had the privilege to work with him. Peter Muse is talented and intelligent. The defendant was lucky to be appointed such a lawyer. Instead he decided to hire private counsel. That private counsel’s actions fell so far below the standards for legal representation that the court found him ineffective and vacated the convictions.
Keeping this in mind, how do you know if your public defender is a keeper?
What to remember with a public defender is that the first time you meet will be in the courtroom and they will probably have 10 other clients there that day. They will not have a lot of time that day to talk to you and get to know all of the facts of your case (plus there are confidentiality issues trying to talk in the courthouse because it is not a very private place and a lot of people can hear you).
I know that the first thing you want to do is get out of the courthouse as fast as possible, but, if you can, stick around a little while. Watch the attorneys who have appearances that day. Watch how they interact with the prosecutors—a good defense attorney will be able to talk easily with the prosecutors. You want an attorney who can work well with the prosecutors to get you the best outcome possible. Watch how the attorneys interact with the Court. Is the attorney prepared? Do they look like they know what they are doing?
Make an appointment to go into their offices and meet with them within a week. A good public defender will make time to sit down with you right away. You need to be comfortable with the person who represents you. This means that when you sit down to talk to them they take the time to listen to you and understand what happened. This means that they listen to your questions and concerns and answer you with more than a cursory “Don’t worry about it, I have it under control.”
A good lawyer should be able to explain to you each step of the process in a way that you can understand. Any time that you have a lawyer who tries to talk over your head and uses big words, this is not the lawyer for you. Part of an attorney’s job is to help you navigate through the system.
A good lawyer should keep you informed of everything that happens in your case. There are no secrets. Remember it is YOUR case not theirs.
A good lawyer does not promise you that he will win your case. A good lawyer may say things like “This is a winnable case,” or “I am confident we can probably do…..,” or “While I can’t promise anything, I really think we can win this one and here is why………” No good lawyer can ever promise a particular outcome in a case because there are too many variables. All they can give you is the most likely scenario.
A criminal case is a scary thing, a good lawyer is not a magician but they can at least help you understand what is going on and give you advice about the best outcomes.