• Should I represent myself in a criminal case?

  • Do I need a lawyer at my arraignment?

  • Are lawyers available for defendants who can’t afford to pay for one?

  • How can I get a court to appoint a lawyer for me?

  • How can I find a private defense lawyer?

  • What is a private lawyer likely to cost?

  • Can I change lawyers if I’m unhappy with the one representing me?

Should I Represent Myself in a Criminal Case?

If you are facing criminal charges, you may be wondering whether you should represent yourself or hire a criminal defense attorney. Some defendants make the mistake to represent themselves to avoid the costs associated with hiring a defense lawyer.

Before deciding whether to represent yourself, you should first analyze the severity of your criminal charges. The general rule here is that the more severe the charge is, the more likely you will require professional legal representation.

For instance, if you have been charged with a minor traffic offense, you can win your case without seeking any help from a criminal defense lawyer. If you lose the case, you may not face any severe penalties.

Generally, criminal offenses are classified into three categories: infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Often, the punishment for infractions is merely a small fine. The most common type of infractions is minor traffic offenses, such as parking violations and speeding. You can comfortably represent yourself if you are facing an infraction, without having any of your legal rights violated.

Typically, misdemeanors are punishable by a county jail term of up to one year and a fine in hundreds or thousands of dollars. There are different classes of misdemeanors, and each of them varies in severity. Make sure you consider the seriousness of the potential penalty when deciding whether or not to represent yourself.

Felonies are the most severe criminal offenses. They are usually punished by lengthy prison terms and hefty fines. Do not risk your future by attempting to represent yourself if you have been charged with a felony.

Regardless of the type of charge you are facing, it would be best to hire a criminal defense attorney to help you win your case. A criminal conviction can have negative, long-lasting consequences on your future. For instance, you will obtain a criminal record, which will prevent you from accessing certain opportunities, such as university admissions, jobs, and affordable housing.

Do I Need a Lawyer at my Arraignment?

The first court session of the criminal trial process is commonly referred to as the ‘arraignment.’ During this session, your charges will be read out to you, and you will be asked to take a plea.

There are two types of pleas: ‘not guilty’ or ‘guilty.’ In most cases, defendants opt for the ‘not guilty’ plea.

If you plead ‘not guilty,’ this is what will happen next:

  • The judge will schedule a mention date for your case

  • The judge will consider any bail/bond requests, which you or the prosecution may have

  • If appropriate, the judge may appoint an attorney for you

On the other hand, if you plead ‘guilty,’ the judge will schedule when he/she can pronounce his/her judgment. If you intend to fight your charges, you should enter a ‘not guilty’ plea. But, sometimes, it can be wise to enter a ‘guilty’ plea, especially if you would like to qualify for a less severe penalty and probably get an opportunity to seal your criminal record after completing the punishment.

Do not make a mistake of entering any plea without consulting a criminal defense attorney. When you consult a criminal defense lawyer, he/she will analyze your case's strengths and weaknesses and advise you about the best plea to take. You may gain more if you plead 'guilty' than entering a 'not guilty' plea in some situations.

During the arraignment, the prosecutor may argue that you should not be released on bail. Although being released on bail is a constitutional right, it isn’t a guarantee. The judge can deny you bail if the prosecutor has sufficient evidence showing that:

  • You are a flight risk

  • You pose a threat to the general public

  • You will tamper with evidence upon being released

You may also not get favorable bail terms. For instance, the bail amount may be too high for you to afford. Or, the judge may impose strict conditions upon being released. In these situations, you will require an attorney to convince the judge to grant you bail with favorable terms.

However, you do not need a lawyer during the arraignment if you are sure about the plea you should take and comfortable with the bail/bond terms. After the arraignment, you can hire an attorney who will take over your case from there.

Are Lawyers Available for Defendants who can’t afford to Pay for One?

Yes, you can still get a lawyer who will help you win your case, even if you cannot afford one. The US Constitution provides for the right to legal representation. As a defendant, you are entitled to be represented by a lawyer, especially if you may face imprisonment upon conviction.

Most defendants are usually unable to pay for their own lawyers. This is why the State Government has established the Public Defender’s (PD) office.

Public defenders are state-licensed attorneys whose primary job is to provide legal representation to defendants who cannot afford to pay for their own private lawyers. Most of these attorneys are extensively experienced in criminal defense. With their help, you can obtain a favorable outcome.

How can I Get a Court to Appoint a Lawyer for me?

During the arraignment, the judge will ask you if you have an attorney. If you don't have, the judge will request you to explain why. Then, he/she may appoint an attorney to represent you, either immediately or after he/she has reviewed your financial situation.

Note that the judge will only choose a lawyer for you if there is a possibility of facing imprisonment upon conviction, and there is evidence showing that you cannot afford to pay for one. The judge will not appoint an attorney for you if the penalty to be imposed upon conviction is not imprisonment. The judge won't also appoint a defense lawyer for you if there is evidence showing that you can afford to pay for one.

Typically, you may be expected to prove your financial circumstances. This is relatively easy; you can simply show the court your pay stubs and income reports.

If you are not eligible for free representation, the judge can still appoint an attorney to represent you at a fee you can afford. After your case has been heard and determined, you will be required to reimburse some of the government's litigation expenses.

How can I Find a Private Defense Lawyer?

If you’ve been arrested, you should get in touch with a criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible. He/she can arrange for your release and represent you during the arraignment.

If you’ve ever had a criminal defense attorney represent you, then that is the lawyer whom you should retain to represent you – as long as you were fully satisfied with his/her services. If you weren't, you could consider hiring other criminal defense attorneys.

There are numerous private defense lawyers. One of the best ways of getting a suitable referral is to consult the lawyers you already know. For instance, you may know a lawyer who represents accident victims. If you trust this lawyer, he/she may refer you to a reliable criminal defense attorney.

You can also check online lawyer directories, such as Nolo, Justia, and FindLaw. These directories provide comprehensive information about a particular attorney’s education, fees, and experience. With this information, you will tell which lawyer will be the best fit for you.

Moreover, you can ask your family members and friends for a referral. Some of them may have interacted with criminal defense lawyers or can willingly help you look for a suitable match.

Furthermore, you can decide to visit the nearest courthouse to your residence. Then, sit through a couple of criminal cases. If you are impressed with a particular attorney, ask for his/her card and then contact him/her to represent you.

Additionally, you can search online for an attorney. Most criminal defense attorneys maintain an online presence. You will find numerous websites for defense lawyers, which indicate how you can get in touch with them. Call some of them, and settle for one whom you like the best.

Note that not all criminal defense attorneys you will find can provide aggressive legal representation. Some of them may be inexperienced, while others may not give your case the attention it deserves. It would be best to conduct a complete background check on a particular attorney before hiring him/her.

What is a Private Lawyer Likely to Cost?

It is impossible to get a definite answer to this question. Criminal defense lawyers determine how much fees they should be paid by themselves. The amounts of these fees usually vary depending on the attorney's experience and how complex the case is.

The more experienced the attorney is, the more likely he/she will charge more expensively. Expect to pay a higher fee if you are facing multiple criminal charges. You will also pay more fees if you were charged with a felony than if you were facing misdemeanor charges.

If you are facing misdemeanor charges, do not get surprised by legal fees ranging between $3,000 - $6,000. On the other hand, a criminal defense attorney may charge between $15,000 - $30,000 to represent a defendant facing felony charges.

You may be billed by the hour, or your attorney can charge a fixed fee. If you are billed by the hour, you should expect to pay for how much time the lawyer will spend on your case. You may also be required to pay for any other expenses the lawyer may incur while representing you, including copying and subpoena fees. Alternatively, you can opt for a flat fee, and the lawyer will calculate upfront on how much time and money he/she will spend on your case and give you a fixed figure.

Contingency fees are not permitted in criminal cases. Typically, your attorney would want you to pay all or a substantial amount of the fees before he/she takes up your case. You will agree with your attorney the amount of the fees you should pay during consultations.

Can I Change Lawyers if I’m Unhappy with the One Representing Me?

Yes, you can change lawyers if you are unhappy with the one representing you. But, it will be more difficult to do so if a court-appointed attorney is representing you.

Judges rarely permit defendants to change their court-appointed attorneys or public defenders. Disagreements between defendants and government-paid attorneys over certain decisions are quite common, but judges do not consider them viable reasons for changing an attorney.

However, if the relationship between you and your court-appointed attorney is awful to the extent that he/she cannot represent you effectively, the court can grant your request for a new counsel. Some court-appointed attorneys may be incompetent, but judges often do not consider it a viable reason for appointing a new one.

On the flip side, you can easily change counsel if you are being represented by a private attorney without seeking approval from the court. The judge will not require you to show cause why you fired your former defense lawyer.

Obviously, changing attorneys will be costly. You will be expected to pay the new attorney and pay your former lawyer for what he/she has already accomplished in your case.

However, the prosecutor may prevent you from changing attorneys under certain circumstances. For instance, you cannot change attorneys just before the trial date. If you do so, you will delay the trial, and some of the prosecutor’s witnesses may be unavailable to testify at a later date.