Choosing Criminal Defense Lawyer: Five Things that Might Surprise You

Choosing the right criminal defense lawyer might be the single most important decision you make throughout your case. Chances are there’s at least dozens if not hundreds of criminal defense lawyers hanging their shingles in your city or town. Most have small practices. A few are really good. Below are five things that might surprise you:

I don’t want a public defender

The truth is the vast majority of criminal defense attorneys in the United States these days make some or the majority of their living from government defense contracts.

They have their own private offices. They are in private practice. They don’t work directly for the public defender’s office. But they are paid as contractors of state and federal criminal justice systems. These lawyers serve on panels like the federal Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel.

The federal CJA panel, particularly, has some very good lawyers serving on it. It can be a sign, one among many, that this is a good lawyer. The original idea of the Criminal Justice Act was to spread the duty to represent the indigent among the private defense bar. These days, many good private lawyers, those who make the bulk of their living from privately retained cases, agree to serve on the CJA panel, or a state court equivalent. They take a few cases a year. A good simple question to ask, therefore, that you might overlook, is whether the lawyer serves, or has ever served on the local CJA panel. If they do, how many cases a year do they take?

Accolades Real and Imagined

A few well-established accolades such as a Martindale-Hubbel® AV Preeminent® (5/5) rating, or a coveted listing in Best Lawyers in America® and US News® Best Law Firms® are recognized symbols that a lawyer and his firm are likely at or near the top of their games. But the field is crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with a host of other “accolades,” badges of self-congratulation, from places no one has ever heard of. Some can simply be bought with an annual subscription. Certain lawyers ballyhoe those. It makes sense then to simply ask if the lawyer has a Martindale-Hubbel AV or BV rating or if they are listed in Best Lawyers in America®.

Honest Reviews

These days, there are so many reviews online; it should be easy to conduct simple research on a lawyer with a click or two. Lawyers can’t make everyone happy all the time. After all, it’s criminal defense: statistically, the vast majority of cases wind up with findings of guilt. There are a few reviews you can trust. Then there are the ones that sound canned, and mechanical, like those “testimonials”–thin and formulaic. So it might be worth it to read the reviews, all of them, the good and the bad, carefully, and see if they are heartfelt and original. In fact, you might look for the reviews of people whose cases couldn’t be won, but who still took the time to write a review, liked the lawyer, and felt she or he was compassionate, skilled and did a good job. That sounds like an honest review. And probably an honest lawyer.

Does the lawyer interview you?

Maybe it’s surprising, but a good criminal defense lawyer is not usually overly eager to take your case. A good lawyer wants to first see if you will have reasonable expectations. She or he will never make promises about winning—just the opposite—he would be leary if you are pressing them to promise a victory, or give you percentages, especially when they haven’t even seen a police report. A good lawyer, on the contrary, will interview you, encourage you to “shop it around” and tell you to hire who you are comfortable with. Whether it’s him or not.

If you want to get something done, ask a busy person

The best lawyers will always be busy, but the busy lawyers will not always be the best. Some are busy if only because they have 100 or more open contract cases (See ¶ 1 above). Some will be busy largely because they have crowded the airwaves and blighted the landscape with TV ads and billboards. Rather, the best lawyers will be busy because they are in high demand. They are usually efficient, have good track records, and connect with clients.

I hope this helps.

Michael A. Harwin is an attorney licensed in Arizona and Colorado practicing criminal defense with extensive trial experience. A noted speaker and author of several publications, he has been recognized by Best Lawyers in America, U.S. News & World Report, Arizona Superlawyers, Tucson Lifestyle Magazine, National Trial Lawyers Top 100, and the Litigation Counsel of America.

Currently, through a publishing agreement with American Bar Association, Michael Harwin is working on a book for lawyers and judges, titled Federal Collateral Consequences Law.

You can connect with Michael on Twitter (@michael_harwin), and you can reach him by email at


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About Michael Harwin

Michael’s skill and experience have been recognized repeatedly. He holds an A-V 5/5 preeminent rating by Martindale Hubbell. He has been named one of the top lawyers in Arizona by Southwest Superlawyers, and one of the best lawyers in Tucson by Tucson Lifestyle Magazine. He also has been named one of the best lawyers in the United States by , and given the highest rating possible by AVVO, 10/10 Superb.
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