Friday, March 23, 2012

What Can a Defense Lawyer Do for You?

A common mistake among people dealing with criminal situations is that they aren't sure what good hiring an attorney would do them.  Part of this is people not realizing when they should be talking to an attorney, what goes into a common representation, and where to find the right lawyer.  I'll try to touch on these things in a little shorter than normal article.

Note:  I intend for this to be somewhat short.  I make no guarantees.  Carry on...

First and foremost, knowing when you should contact an attorney isn't as easy as it seems.  I think most people know that they should speak with a lawyer if they've been arrested for committing a crime and are being taken to jail, but such an incident shouldn't be the first spark in your mind that you need legal assistance.

While the nature of some crimes leads to an immediate arrest, some crimes involve a certain amount of police investigation before any charges are filed.  If you are aware that police are investigating you regarding a crime that you may or may not have committed, that is a great time to speak with an attorney.  Often, the person of interest in a criminal investigation waits too long to contact an attorney, speaks with the police a couple of times, and in doing so, incriminates his or herself without even realizing it.  Police will use clever tactics to induce information from people they suspect of having committed a crime.  If you haven't been charged, detained, or arrested, your Miranda rights are not yet vested.  Police can ask you any question they'd like.  You have no obligation to answer them, but they will try to make you believe that being cooperative will make things a lot easier.  This is not always the case.

If you have been pegged as a person of interest in a criminal case, contact an attorney immediately.  There are a couple of good reasons to do this.

1) If you have legal representation and make this known to the detective investigating the case, the police can no longer contact you directly.  Any conversations they have with you would be unable to lead to any usable evidence unless you have your attorney with you.  This protects you from having to answer questions by yourself.  Getting the protection of an attorney is an important step to stopping the progress of the police investigation.

2) You're going to have a lot of questions that the internet won't be able to answer.  Every criminal investigation is different.  Having someone who has experience in the process guiding you and advising you through the process will prove invaluable.  Trying to navigate this complicated process on your own could lead to you making mistakes and increasing the chances that you are charged with and convicted of a crime.

Now, it's understandable that you may be leery of hiring an attorney and paying a fair amount of money when it's not 100% clear that you're even going to be charged with a crime.  This is an understandable concern.  However, I can assure you that getting an attorney on your side up front could save you a lot of money in the end by keeping your case out of court.  For instance, depending on the type of charge you are facing, I would probably charge you a flat fee for representation.  If you are yet to be charged, my typical practice is to charge only half of the normal flat fee for the type of crime you are being investigated for.  If you get charged, the other half will become due, but if you never get charged, you'll only owe half the normal fee.  Flat fees are a popular thing among criminal defense attorneys right now as they grant protection to both them and the client.  The lawyer is protected because he can ask for the money up front, ensuring he gets paid for his services.  The client is protected because they won't have to worry about crazy high bills coming at the end of each month.  They know exactly what their representation will cost and can budget accordingly.  Aside from attorney fees, you could be responsible for things like court costs, filing fees, paralegal fees, investigator fees, or extra fees to the attorney for going to court.  It quickly becomes easy to see why paying a little up front is more desirable than rolling the dice and risking being stuck with huge defense costs later.

Attorneys do a lot more for their clients than just defend them in the courtroom.  Attorneys advise clients on the way to answer questions, how to deal with the police, and how to carry themselves in the community when they are publicly suspected of a crime.  Your lawyer will be someone who you can confide in, knowing full well that they won't and can't tell anyone what you talk about.  They will inform you about the law governing the claims being made against you, explain what you will have to accomplish in order to avoid being found guilty, and can usually offer a little insight as to what the prosecution is up to.  When you hire a criminal defense attorney, you have at your disposal an almost endless supply of experience and knowledge that will give you the resources necessary to improve your chances of a good outcome in your case.

The other mistake people make in hiring an attorney is simply picking the one closest to them.  While geography should be a consideration in your decision making process, it should not be the only criteria you are using to choose your lawyer.  I would love everyone who lives in my city to choose me to be their attorney when they need a criminal lawyer, but the truth is I may not be the best fit for them.  On the other hand, I live a long ways from someone from Mankato, but maybe my technique, style, and personality would be the perfect fit for someone from that area who is facing criminal charges.  It really is important to use more than your local yellow pages to find a quality lawyer.  Talk to friends.  Check out the website of a few different firms.  Talk to some lawyers over the phone.  Send out some emails.  You will learn a lot about an attorney by how quickly he responds to an email or whether he answers the phone when you call.  If no one picks up, how long does it take them to call you back?  You need to have some urgency when dealing with the potential of criminal charges, so you want an attorney who has that same urgency when it comes to connecting with potential clients.  Use the resources at your disposal to find an attorney who can get you on the right track before charges are even brought.  Having that step up will prove valuable.

Hopefully this helps you determine when it's the right time to speak with an attorney regarding your criminal situation.  In summation, if you've been charged with a crime, if you're aware that you're a person of interest in a criminal investigation, or if you've been contacted by police regarding your role in the commission of a crime, it's time to touch base with a lawyer.  My general rule of thumb to my clients is that if you're wondering whether you need an attorney, you should at the very least be talking to one.  Many criminal attorneys (myself included) will offer you a free consultation in order to see if we like you, you like us, and what kind of defense strategy will be necessary.  This is a valuable offer and should be taken advantage of if you're unsure as to how you should proceed.

If you or a loved one have been contacted by police regarding a criminal investigation, are a person of interest in a criminal investigation, or have recently been charged with a crime, get on the phone with a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer today to start assessing your prospects and figuring out your next move.

As always, the content of this blog is not to be construed as legal advice.  This website is for entertainment purposes, only.  If you or a loved one may be in need of legal advice or representation, contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney today for quality, specialized legal service.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Trial of the Week: Minnesota Viking Chris Cook's Felony Domestic Assault Trial

From time to time, I'll be doing a segment here that I call Trial of the Week.  Basically, I'll give you a rundown of the trial going on in the state of Minnesota that I find most interesting.  I'd like to say I plan on making this a weekly thing, but more likely it will be every month or so.  Maybe I should call it Trial of the Month?  Whatever.

This week, we'll take a look at the trial of Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook.  Cook was charged with felony domestic assault and 3rd degree assault in conjuction with an alleged incident between Cook and his girlfriend in October of 2011.  Cook was put on leave from the team and missed the rest of the season.

Initially, the crux of the case against Cook was the statement given by Cook's girlfriend that the defensive back hit and choked her, leaving her with scratches and bruising around her neck, swelling in her face, and a ruptured eardrum.  The injuries allowed prosecutors to charge Cook with the aggravated 3rd degree assault as opposed to a more common 5th degree charge, meaning that both charges he faces can result in more than a year in jail, plus significant fines.

The prosecution had to feel good about this case initially, but those good feelings might be washing away.  Not only did Hennepin County prosecutors have the testimony of the girlfriend, Chantel Baker, who claimed that Cook viciously attacked her, but also the forensic evidence to back it up with the bruises, scratches, swelling, and injury to the ear drum.

Recently, Ms. Baker has recanted her original explanation to the police.  She now says that Cook never strangled her, and that she only claimed he did because she was mad at him and wanted him to go to jail.  She claims to have immediately regretted her lie and felt guilt over her false representations.

Now that Baker's testimony was something of a question mark, the prosecution would have to lean more heavily on the forensic evidence.  Unfortunately for them, that evidence took a bit of a hit yesterday, as well.  Cook's defense team introduced an expert witness who testified that the marks on Baker's neck were not consistent with injuries one would sustain during an attempted strangulation.  The defense's alternate theory of how the marks got on Baker's neck involved her earring leaving the scratches, and the bruising being attributable to hickeys given to her by Cook.  This, coupled with Cook's testimony that Baker attacked him first, causing him to hit her in self defense (which is what the defense claims caused the ruptured ear drum), means that all the evidence prosecutors expected to use has a reasonable defense against it.

In order for the felony convictions to stick against Cook, the prosecution will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that not only did Cook physically assault Baker, but that his assault is what caused the injuries she sustained.  However, if the jury believes Cook's account of the evening, his claim of self defense would act as an affirmative defense to the charges and exonerate him from any legal wrongdoing.

So, what's my take on this?  Well, the jury went into deliberation today, so we should hear something final by the end of the week.  If I were the prosecutor on this case, I'd offer up a plea of misdemeanor domestic assault and 5th degree assault, no jail time, and in lieu of a fine (which really wouldn't hurt an NFL player anyway) I would propose some amount of community service.  I'd be worried that my star witness didn't say what I thought she was going to say.  I'd be worried that the defense had a doctor say the injuries weren't consistent with strangulation.  Mostly, I'd be worried that a guy who I thought I had dead to rights a few months ago has a good chance to walk away from this unpunished.  The jury has been instructed to consider these misdemeanor charges as lesser included charges in case they are not comfortable convicting Cook of the felonies.  This is good for the prosecution, because they can still get a conviction even if the jury doesn't buy the entire story.

If I'm the defense team, I'd consider a deal that would avoid a felony and jail time.  Cook, as an NFL player, has quite a bit riding on not doing jail time.  The NFL will likely suspend him for a couple of games regardless of the outcome of this trial, but by avoiding jail time he can still practice with the team and continue to prepare for the 2012 season.  Obviously, if I were Cook's attorney, I'd look for the best deal I can get, but I would probably accept the above deal from the prosecution.  Yes, there is a chance that the jury is going to come back with a not guilty verdict, but juries are historically tougher on men accused of harming women than they are in other instances.

At this point, however, it certainly appears that this case will be decided by Cook's peers.  My gut tells me that he won't be convicted of the felony charges, but that at least one of the lesser included misdemeanors will stick.  Cook won't do any more jail time than the 4 days he did waiting for arraignment.  He'll do a little community service, and he'll receive a 4 game suspension from the NFL.  All in all, there are just too many things for the jury to question regarding what actually happened that night for them to confidently put a man in jail for the next few years.

Cases like this are always tough to figure out.  It's difficult to separate the emotions from the facts, and juries find themselves trying to separate their own preconceived notions from the facts of the case.  For Cook, being a big guy (6'2", 215 lbs) doesn't work in his favor, either.  Often, when the charge is that a significantly larger man did something physical to a smaller woman, the jury feels an obligation to protect the alleged victim (even though they shouldn't).  As a defense attorney, I would try to stress these factors to my client, making him aware of the fact that his actions aren't the only things on trial in a case like this.  Cook, while he has a strong case, will do well to avoid jail time.  I'm sure his lawyers know that.

Ultimately, this case will hinge on whether the jury believed the testimony Cook gave on Tuesday.  When a defendant takes the stand, a lot of the other testimony and evidence gets discounted by the jury.  It's the whole "straight from the horses mouthWhen an attorney recommends to his or her client, they have to make sure that their client will be convincing because so much will ride on that testimony.  If Cook did as well in the eyes of the jurors as he did in my eyes, he could be seeing a very favorable outcome when the jury ends their deliberation.

If you are in a situation where a criminal trial may be in your future, it's important to get legal representation immediately in order to set up the strongest possible defense.  Delaying hiring an attorney only increases the chance of you saying the wrong thing to police, missing out on opportunities to agree to a plea bargain, and decreases the amount of time your lawyer will have to evaluate your case and prepare for court.  If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime or fear that you will be, contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer today to get the jump on your defense.

As always, information contained in this blog is for entertainment purposes, only, and should not be construed as legal advice.  If you are in need of legal advice or representation, contact a Minnesota attorney to receive the specialized guidance you need in your time of trial.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Pulled Over, and You've Been Drinking: Do's and Don'ts

I really do love what I do.  Helping people who have been charged with crimes give each day a fresh feel to it.  I've handled cases ranging from simple traffic violations to complex felony situations.  My work is often very exciting and interesting.  One area that is less exciting than the others is DWI defense.  It's not that DWI's are less serious than other crimes or that they involve any less work.  It's just that they tend to be very similar and often lack the opportunity to really get involved with investigating, fact finding, and witness interviews.  They tend to follow a pretty specific pattern (unless there are challenges to the actual arrest...then it can get fun) and end in similar ways.  However, regardless of how interesting some of the cases I've worked on in the past may be, when people find out that I handle DWI cases, they all want to ask about how would handle being pulled over after having consumed a few adult beverages.  In light of this, I thought sharing my answer with my blog community would be a useful exercise for me and for my readers.

Keep in mind, the following is not intended to be construed as specific legal advice.  Every person's situation is different, so following one set of rules doesn't make any sense.  If you are dealing with a DWI charge, please contact a Minnesota DWI attorney in order to get specific, individualized advice on how to handle your situation.

The situation I'm about to cover is going to make the assumptions that I have indeed been drinking and believe strongly that if I submit to field sobriety or a preliminary breath test (PBT), I will fail.  If you have, in fact, not been drinking, or you believe strongly that you have not drank enough alcohol to fail these tests, my advice for you would be different.  I'll touch on that situation at the end.  But, first, I've been drinking, I could very well be legally drunk, and the police are hot on my trail.  What do I do?

I get pulled over by the officer.  After a short burst of curse words and self-loathing, I gather my license and insurance information.  In Minnesota (and all other states, for that matter), one thing you are required to tell an officer of the law is your personal information when asked for it.  If you are pulled over while operating a motor vehicle, you are also required to show proof of valid insurance on your vehicle.  No questions asked, there.

The officer will usually read your license to get your name, address, and whatnot, and then ask you a question along the lines of "Do you know why I've pulled you over, today?"  Whether or not I know why he pulled me over, I would answer in the negative.  If you start rattling off reasons for the officer to have pulled you over, that's not going to help your cause.  On the other hand, if the officer asks something like "Do you know how fast you were going," always answer "yes."  If you answer "no" to a question like that, even if you avoid a ticket for speeding or DWI, you could get one for inattentive driving.  After I say I don't know why I've been pulled over, the officer will usually give you a reason for pulling you over.  Whether you were speeding, weaving, driving without headlights on (hey, it happens), or even going too slow, they'll come up with something that gave them probable cause to pull you over.  

The questions that comes next is one that people almost invariably answer wrong.  If the officer believes you've been drinking, he'll say something like "I notice your speech is a big slurred.  Have you had any alcohol to drink this evening?"  Most people who have been drinking and are asked this question say something along the lines of "I've had a couple (fill in your beverage of choice here)," believing that if they fess up to drinking a small amount that the officer will appreciate their honesty and let them go on about their merry way.  The proverbial "couple drinks" is a very non-committal amount of alcohol and is a seemingly benign quantity, at that.  What you've actually done by answering in this manner is validated the officer's suspicion that you've been imbibing and given him more than enough reason to ask you to submit to field sobriety tests or a breath test.  In all truthfulness, your answer here may not matter much, anyway.  Minnesota courts have concluded time and time again that things like bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, or even the mere presence of an odor of alcohol are more than enough for an officer to justify administering field sobriety tests.  Regardless of this, your answer to the question of "have you been drinking?" or "how much have you had to drink this evening?" should be no answer at all.  You have no obligation to answer any of the officer's questions after he has your personal information.  I would simply say "I would prefer not to answer that question at this time."  This probably isn't going to save you from being arrested, but it's best to assume that you're not going to avoid that at this point, anyway.  It is best to stay quiet and keep from further incriminating yourself.

After I have refused to answer any questions regarding the amount of alcohol I've consumed, the officer will likely ask me to step out of the car.  You can decline a request to do this, but all that will lead to is the officer ordering you out of the vehicle.  It's best to just comply with this request and step out of the car.  Make sure the door is closed behind you to ensure the officer isn't able to get a clear view of the entire interior of your car.  Even if you have nothing to hide, that is your private space.  Any search they want to do should be done the right way.  Close the door and save yourself some hassle later.

After I've stepped out, the officer is likely to ask me to submit to a field sobriety test (FST).  There are three parts to an FST.  

1) The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test.  This is the test where the officer takes a pen, penlight, or their finger and asks you to follow it while they move it left to right across the front of your face.  What they are looking for here is the way your eyes follow the object.  If your eyes jerk around a lot, or if the jerking around occurs when the eye is within a certain amount of center, it can create probable cause to arrest you under suspicion of DWI.  This is the most effective test to determine whether someone is intoxicated, statistically.  

2) The Walk and Turn Test.  This test is really an exercise in multitasking.  You will be instructed to take a specified number of steps along a straight line by touching your heel to your toe on each step.  While you are walking, you will be given instruction on what to do when you reach your final step.  Usually this instruction is to turn around on a certain foot, turn back around on a certain foot, and continue a specified number of steps in the original direction.  Things the officer is looking for in order to confirm their hypothesis that you are intoxicated are:

  • If you cannot maintain balance while listening to the instructions
  • If you begin before instructions are finished.
  • If you stop while walking to regain balance.
  • If you do not touch heel-to-toe.
  • If you use arms to balance.
  • If you lose balance while turning.
  • If you take an incorrect number of steps.

If you fail 2 or more of these, there exists sufficient probable cause that you will test over the legal limit for BAC.  

3)  The One-Leg Stand Test.  This test is something of a combination of the first two.  It is intended to test your dexterity, as well as your ability to listen and follow directions.  You will be instructed to lift a certain foot about 6 inches off the ground and hold it there for about 30 seconds.  You will be instructed to count out loud while doing this, usually in a specific manner (i.e. one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, etc...) until you are done.  The officer will be looking for you to sway, use your arms to balance you, hop to keep your balance, or put your foot down to avoid falling.  If you do two or more of those things, that's enough for them to arrest you.  

That's it.  Any other tests administered to you are bull.  Close your eyes and touch your nose?  Bull.  Recite the ABC's backwards?  Bull.  Rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time?  Bull.  None of those are part of the Standardized Field Sobriety Test, and while they may help to indicate whether you are intoxicated, none can be used as evidence in court because of their lack of reliability.

In my hypothetical situation, I would choose to decline participating in these tests.  You have Constitutional right to refuse to take the tests.  The officer may say things like "If you decline these, you will be arrested for DWI and tested at the station."  My answer would be, "That's fine," because he's going to arrest me when I fall on my ass trying to walk a straight line, too.  By declining, I'm giving myself a little more time for my blood alcohol content to drop (although, studies on alcohol metabolism show that depending on when you quit drinking, your BAC may actually rise on the way to the station), and I'm depriving him an extra piece of evidence to use against me at trial.  My unwillingness to submit to these tests can't be used against me in trial.

The final thing the officer will likely try to get you to do is submit to a Preliminary Breath Test (PBT).  The PBT is the small, cellphone sized machine that officers use to get an idea of what your blood alcohol content.  I say they use it to get an idea of what your BAC is because these things are not terribly accurate.  Many factors can cause you to have a falsely high reading on the PBT.  Having traces of alcohol in your mouth, having recently vomited, or even having recently used mouthwash can cause your BAC to spike according to a PBT.  My response to the officer's request to administer this test will be (you guessed it!) "no thank you."  Again, they're going to tell you things like "If you don't comply, I'll arrest you," but they're probably going to arrest you either way, and giving them a positive PBT isn't going to help your lawyer's cause when he's trying to challenge your arrest.

After you refuse the FST and the PBT, you will almost assuredly be arrested and charged with a DWI.  You'll be brought to the station/hospital/jail in order to undergo your evidentiary test, which will either consist of a urine test, blood test, or breath test, or some combination of the three.  The urine and blood tests are pretty self-explanatory, but the breath test is a little different than the one you would encounter on the side of the road.  The machine used for this test looks sort of like a big inkjet printer with a keyboard on the front.  This machine is about 100x more accurate than the portable device you would have blown into during your traffic stop.  Generally speaking, it is a horrible idea to decline one of these tests.  If you have an aversion to needles or feel like you will not be able to produce the necessary urine for those tests, you can request the other.  If you choose to decline all three tests, you will lose your driving privileges for no less than one year.  For some context, if you are convicted of a simple DWI with no aggravating factors, you'll only lose your license for 90 days.  If you've got multiple offenses or were more than double the legal limit, that suspension time will go up.  Simply submitting to the tests may constitute essentially giving up, but it's better than the alternative.  Breath tests are, by a wide margin, the most common type of test used by officers.  Blood and urine tests are both subject to chain of command issues (think Ryan Braun), making them less of a sure thing, so officers usually try to avoid administering them.  Many states have rules that state the breath test is the one that must be used unless the suspect is unconscious.  

While this more or less ends your participation in the DWI arrest process, the process itself can be far from over.  While breath tests come back almost immediately, urine and blood tests can take weeks to come back.  During this waiting period, you'll likely have your arraignment hearing, giving you a chance to enter your plea and whatnot.  The trial wouldn't start until the results are back, obviously, so it could give you an opportunity to have your attorney (you should really have a Minnesota DWI defense attorney hired before going to your arraignment) come up with a strategy.  Either way, now that you know what I would do, you'll be equipped with the information necessary to make good decision when dealing with the officer.

An important thing to note is that while you're not required to submit to much of anything, nor are you required to answer the officer's questions (other than the personal info stuff), you don't have to be a jerk to the officer, either.  The old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar holds especially true when dealing with the police.  While being agreeable and pleasant may not keep you from being arrested, it will at least decrease the wrath you'll catch from the arresting officer.  Police have a difficult enough job without people hassling them or giving them a hard time while they're doing it.  Be polite, be cooperative, but be careful.  

If you have, in fact, not been drinking at all or have consumed such a small amount of alcohol that you are certain you will pass any field tests or PBT, by all means, go ahead and take them.  Just remember that passing these tests doesn't necessarily mean you aren't going to be brought in for chemical tests.  If you are innocent, however, this should be nothing more than an inconvenience to you.  Another thing to remember is that FST's can be difficult to complete under no influence of alcohol and in optimum conditions.  If you throw in a drink or two, wind, ice, snow, rain, and cars whizzing by you on the road, you could easily fail these tests regardless of whether you're actually inebriated.  Proceed at your own caution in this circumstance.

Knowing what to do when you're pulled over under suspicion of impaired driving should not be viewed as a ticket to go out and drink and drive.  The reason it's illegal to drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is because you can be a serious danger to not only yourself, but to the other motorists on the roads.  The only sure way to make sure you're never charged with a DWI is to completely refrain from drinking and driving.  There's always an alternative.  Get a sober ride.  Call a cab.  Take public transportation.  Find a way to avoid drinking and driving.  Every time you take your chances by drinking and driving, you not only increase the liklihood that you'll get caught, but also that you'll hurt yourself or someone else.  That being said, people do make mistakes, and it's important to know your rights if you make such a mistake.  

If you or a loved one have recently been charged with a DWI and have yet to hire legal representation, contact a Minnesota DWI lawyer today to get someone working with you to ensure the best possible outcome.  Don't be a victim of your own hesitation.  Get a qualified Minnesota defense attorney on your side today.

As always, no information on this website is intended in any way to be construed as legal advice.  If you or someone you know is facing a situation that requires legal advice, contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer today.  Each legal situation is different, so it's important to get advice tailored to your individual set of circumstances.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Value vs. Cost, Part II: Why Going with the Cheapest Option Might Not Be a Good Idea

On Monday, I wrote in this space about finding value when choosing an attorney.  The point of that article was to remind you of something you probably already know.  Namely, that just because something is more expensive does not make it inherently better.  But what about the other side of the spectrum?  Is it safe to assume that something that is cheaper than a similar product is likely just as good, and therefore a better value?  Not always.

When I was in law school, I had something of a shoestring budget.  I lived in a house with three other guys.  I was living off of student loans and a part time job, so I had to make sure that I was watching my bottom line.  I love to eat peanut butter.  It's one of my favorite things.  Sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night and just eat a spoonful of it.  As a result of my addiction, my peanut butter budget was becoming prohibitive during this frugal period of my life.  I decided I needed to find a way to cut my PB costs, and since eating less of it wasn't an option, that meant buying the bargain basement store brand.  "It's just peanut butter," I thought.  "How much different could it be?"  The answer was "very different."  It was the worst thing I've ever tasted in my life.  I made a sandwich, took one bite, spit said bite into the sink, and proceeded to take the rest of the peanut butter in the jar and fling it into the alley for the raccoons to eat.  That garbage was not fit for human consumption.  This experience taught me a hard lesson about value vs. cost.

I have since found generic peanut butter brands that are perfectly fine and usually purchase them instead of the Skippy's or Jiff's of the world and take the $.75 in savings with each trip to the store.  I have found that not all generic peanut butters are disgusting, but the first one I tried sure was.  How does this relate to hiring an attorney?  Just like with cheap peanut butter, it's all about finding an attorney that both fits your budget and your taste.

In a perfect world, money would be no object for people when choosing an attorney.  They would be able to meet with a handful of prospects, determine which one is the best fit for them, and happily write a check for whatever the agreed upon amount for representation ends up being.  Unfortunately, that's not the way the world works.  Most people need to shop for bargains for everything from toothpaste to houses.  Attorneys are no different.  So, how do you avoid getting the unpalatable attorney and having to learn your lesson the hard way?  There are a few things you can do to "test" lawyers when you meet with them that can help you figure out whether they're inexpensive because they're bad or just because they're economical.

First of all, don't bring up cost with a lawyer before you talk about anything else.  The last thing I want to hear from a potential client as soon as I answer the phone is "I'm just looking for a quote for..."  What this tells me is that their plan is to call a ton of lawyers to find out which one will agree to do it for the least money.  I don't want those clients.  I believe the my rates are exceptionally reasonable, and I have even been known to cut folks a deal in certain situations, but a client that cares more about getting a good price than they do about getting good representation isn't one that I want to work with.  Clients like that are often less interested in participating in their defense and are less likely to ever pay the reduced fee they are looking for.  Don't be that kind of client.  If for no other reason, bring up cost at the beginning of a consultation is not effective because most lawyers will want to hear what they're dealing with before they'll give you a quote.  Attorneys know their services are expensive and cost prohibitive for a lot of people.  If your case is interesting enough, some lawyers may be willing to meet you in the middle on fees.  You'll never find out if they are open to that if you offend them by complaining about money right away.

Second, have good questions ready when you call or meet with an attorney.  Most lawyers won't have all the answers for you during an initial consultation.  That's what legal research is for.  They should, however, be able to answer your basic questions regarding the type of punishment you could face, potential defense strategies, and your case's strengths and weaknesses.  If you meet with a lawyer that doesn't seem to know much about your charge, that's a red flag.  All attorneys will say things like "I'll have to look this up" or "this is somewhat unique, so I'll have to look at some cases," but those shouldn't be the only answers they offer.  Look for an attorney who appears to be up on current laws, precedents, and techniques in the field.  Attorney's who aren't will spend a lot of time looking up basic questions, which in the end will end up costing you money in billable hours.

Third, be extremely leery of any lawyer who's quote is significantly lower than other attorneys you meet with.  If five lawyers quoted you between $2500 and $3000 for a certain case, be careful of the attorney who says he can do it for $1000.  Rates that low can be indicators of three things:

1) This lawyer is so new to the game that he or she has no idea what their time is worth.  While I don't think experience is all it's cracked up to be (experience is something older attorneys highlight, while younger attorneys highlight how hard they work and the attention they'll give you), you don't want someone handling your case who clearly has no idea what they're getting into.

2) This lawyer, for whatever reason, has so much trouble finding clients that when someone calls them with a case, they will agree to pretty much any fee arrangement just to sign the client.  Aggressiveness is a good quality in a lawyer; desperation is not.  An attorney that is so desperate to sign you to an agreement that they're willing to charge 40% of what everyone else charges for your case is an attorney you'll want to steer clear of.

3) This lawyer charges so little because he or she takes any and every case that comes across his desk and deals with a HUGE volume of work.  I call this the Wal*Mart theory of lawyering.  Wal*Mart can sell goods at reduced costs because they buy and sell so damn much of everything.  Their profit margin on each item might be a little less than a smaller store, but the sheer volume of transactions make them on of the most profitable companies in the world.  The issue with Wal*Mart is that their products and service aren't always top notch.  The same goes for attorneys who overextend themselves.  Being busy as a lawyer is a good thing, but being overworked is a bad thing.  It all goes back to what I talked about in my article comparing private attorneys to public defenders.  Public defenders aren't worse lawyers than private lawyers, but they are often hindered by their caseload.  An attorney who has too many active clients is one who won't have enough time to dedicate specifically to you.  Overworked lawyers are usually quick to suggest a plea, even when the chances of a successful trial are good, simply because it will get your file off their desk and give them a better per hour rate for their time.  You want to work with a lawyer who is in demand, but isn't so swamped with work that they're going to neglect your case.

Basically, you need to use common sense when hiring an attorney, just the same as you need to when purchasing a car, house, or peanut butter.  If you feel comfortable with a lawyer and they meet your budget, your search is over.  If you feel comfortable with someone but they charge more than you're really prepared to spend, you need to decide whether it's worth the extended cost to get representation you'll be comfortable with.  If someone is in your price range but doesn't exactly instill you with confidence in their ability to handle your case efficiently and effectively, you're probably better off continuing your search.

There's no doubt that finding the right attorney can be an arduous process.  Whether you've been charged with a DWI, felony, misdemeanor, traffic violation, or a juvenile crime, contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer today to get someone working on your behalf.

As always, none of the proceeding information is intended to act as legal advice in any way.  If you have been charged with a crime, or you believe you may soon be charged with a crime, contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney immediately regarding your situation to get the advice and guidance you need.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Value vs. Cost: Choosing an Attorney on a Budget

I was watching an old episode of Law and Order: SVU yesterday.  It was one from a few years back that dealt with an adult son of a very well-to-do family who had been accused of raping and murdering a girl from his college.  The son was in an interrogation room at the precinct when, out of nowhere, in swooped his aggressive, high-priced attorney, who had been charged with the task of saving the day for this notable family.  The attorney asked if his client had been charged, and when met with a "no" from Detective Stabler, he scooped up the young man, who had quite the smug grin on his face, and exited the room.


SVU is just a TV show, obviously, but there was a not-so-subtle underlying theme to this scene.  Because this young man's family was well off, he was able to be represented by the best of the best; someone who could come in and clean up his mess (for a hefty fee, of course).  If the suspect had been an average Joe; or worse, outright poor, he would surely have not had the same type of representation, would have been forced to sit there in that room and spill his guts to the detectives, and would have ended up signing the pre-written confession that was probably sitting in the other room for him, right?

The truth is, attorney's charge different amounts for similar service for lots of different reasons, just the same as other business do.  Let's look at clothing stores, for example.  A cotton t-shirt purchased at Old Navy is likely going to cost less than a similar cotton t-shirt purchased at American Eagle Outfitters.  Comparing the primary functions of a t-shirt, it's unlikely the one from AE is going to do a better job of covering your torso.  It's unlikely there will be much of a difference in the comfortableness of the shirts.  It's also possible that each shirt would have flashy, albeit different, designs on them to make you seem as though you're on the cutting edge of fashion.  So why is it, then, that this graphic t-shirt from Old Navy costs about $4.50 (about 25%) less than this graphic t-shirt from American Eagle?  Both are a similar color, made from the same material, and have graphics that take up about the same percentage of the front of the shirt.  If you were looking at this quandary from a completely pragmatic point of view, you would deduct that the shirt from Old Navy represents the better value.  However, the AE shirt is still, presumably, being purchased at a high rate.  This is because not everyone sees value in the same way.  For someone who places value on other people's perception of their sense of style, perhaps the "American Eagle" brand printed across their chest is sufficient to warrant them spending an extra $4.50 on that shirt.

But, why does AE charge more in the first place?  Wouldn't they be better off offering this shirt at a more competitive rate?  The answer is "maybe."  As I said above, lawyers charge different amounts for the same services for a myriad of different reasons.  Stores do the same.  Maybe AE's production costs are higher due to their inability to order products in the same volumes that Old Navy can.  Maybe AE's materials are of a slightly higher quality, forcing them to charge a higher price to help cover their materials costs.  Maybe AE has done extensive research and determined that the price tag on their shirt is one that will give them optimal profit margins (i.e., maybe they could sell 5 shirts an hour if they were $15, but it's more profitable to sell 4 shirts an hour at $19 each).  Maybe AE's store space is more expensive per square foot, meaning that their overhead costs force them to charge a higher premium for their products.  Anyway, you get the idea.  There are many reasons that could be responsible for higher costs at AE than at Old Navy.

The same can be said for law firms.  A law firm that consists of one attorney with 2 years of experience who works out of his home is likely going to be able to charge less for the same services than an attorney with the same experience who works at a firm with 15 other lawyers, each with their own secretary, and a handful of paralegals who have a suite in a high-rise in downtown Minneapolis.  The second lawyer in this scenario has more overhead to cover in his costs, where as the first attorney can put almost his entire fee directly into his pocket.  Just because attorney #2 charges at a rate of $300 an hour while attorney #1 charges $150 doesn't mean that one is any better than the other.  Again, by looking at the primary functions and qualification of a lawyer, we can see that attorney #1 probably isn't much different than attorney #2.  They probably both went to perfectly fine law schools, interned at a firm during their summers, got a similar entry-level job out of school, and have gotten a similar amount of experience along the way.

Ultimately, the decision that you will have to make will boil down to where you find value in attorneys.  If you're someone who loves personal, one-on-one attention, it's likely that you'll be happier with the sole practitioner.  If you find value in the security that comes with the money, resources, and reputation of the larger firm, you might be more comfortable with them representing you.  A lot of times, as I've mentioned previously, you will make your decision based solely on which attorney you like better.  It may seem like a trivial thing, but people tend to work better with others when they find those people to be generally agreeable.  You don't have to be friends with your lawyer to work well together, but seeing as you'll likely be spending a sizable amount of time with them, a friendly rapport couldn't hurt.

Oh, and the kid with the ritzy attorney?  He's doing 25-to life in fictional prison.  Sometimes art does imitate life.

Choosing a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer to represent you in a criminal case isn't always easy.  Whether you've been charged with something as minor as misdemeanor trespassing or as serious as felony assault, finding the right person to represent you is not something to be taken lightly.  If you have been charged with a crime or believe that you may be charged with one soon, contact a Minnesota defense attorney today to get someone in your corner who is ready to fight for your rights.

Lastly, come back Wednesday, March 7th to read about when a lower fee doesn't always represent the good value that it would appear to.  Here's hoping everyone has a great, crime-free week!