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

  • Do I need a lawyer at my arraignment?

  • How can I find a private defense lawyer?

  • What is a private lawyer likely to cost?

  • Should I represent myself in a criminal case?

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

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

How can I get the Court to Appoint a Lawyer for me?

The legal system’s primary foundation in the U.S. is that every individual facing criminal charges has a right to legal counsel. Some private lawyers charge hundreds of dollars per hour as legal fees, and many defendants can’t afford to pay the fees. If you face criminal charges and can’t afford a private attorney, you may qualify for a public defender who will work at the government’s expense. Whether you are eligible for a court-appointed lawyer depends on the type of charges you are facing.

The chance to appeal the judge to assign you legal counsel presents itself on your initial arraignment or bail hearing when charges are brought against you. Remember, a court-appointed attorney must be requested. Therefore, if you don’t order one, the court will not automatically assign one. When the judge hearing your case reads out the charges, the first question that will be directed to you is whether you have legal counsel. If not, the judge will ask if you would like one appointed for you.

Suppose you would like the court to appoint an attorney for your case, the court will want proof that you can’t afford one. Courts only assign public defenders for a case where there is sufficient proof that the defendant can’t enlist their attorney. The court will require evidence of financial reports that demonstrate your inability to retain a criminal attorney’s services. Often, you will be provided with a questionnaire to fill out. Ensure all the answers you give are honest because providing false or inaccurate information can result in extra charges of perjury.

The rules of eligibility for a court-appointed attorney vary from one state to another. One of the primary considerations the court considers is the seriousness of the charge you are facing. Therefore, even if the court analyzes your finances and concludes that you earn a decent living and could afford legal counsel for a misdemeanor or infraction, it might conclude that you are partially indigent, which makes you qualify for a court-appointed attorney. This will happen if you face serious charges that will require long billable hours by a private attorney and whose conviction might result in jail or prison incarceration.

A judgment of partial indigency means that although you are not eligible for a public defender, the judge feels that you can’t afford the full cost of enlisting the services of a private attorney because of the significant number of billable hours. For this reason, they offer to appoint a lawyer for you, but once the case is concluded, you must compensate the government for a portion of the cost of legal counsel.

In case you are wondering whether a public defender is right for you, you should understand these legal representatives have more experience than many private defenders. Additionally, they have an outstanding commitment to their clients. However, the massive caseloads of these attorneys make it challenging to commit to a particular case. Lack of enough time to evaluate your case and mount strong defenses might result in an unfavorable verdict.

Do I Need a Lawyer at My Arraignment?

An arraignment is a criminal process where the judge states the criminal charges you face on your first court appearance. The process depends on the state where you are being charged. And it’s usually conducted after or together with a bail hearing. In a typical arraignment, the following things happen:

  • The judge states the criminal charges you, as the defendant, face.

  • The judges ask if you have enlisted a legal representative, or you would like a public defender appointed to your case.

  • The judge asks you how you plead to the stated charges

  • The court decides whether to modify the terms of bail or release you on your own recognizance

  • The judge schedules a new court date

Recall that the arraignment procedures and requirements vary from state to state. In some states, you will require legal counsel to enlighten you on your constitutional rights. Others, like California, discuss bail and release during an arraignment, which makes it essential to have an attorney present during the process so that they can convince the judge to release you on bail. If you have been charged in a state where bail hearing occurs before arraignment, you can appear before the court without a lawyer present. However, you are encouraged to retain legal counsel in every step of the case, including arraignment.

How Can I Find a Private Defense Lawyer?

Right after your apprehension and booking, you need to reach out to a lawyer. The primary reason for contacting a lawyer is to commence the process of securing your release. An attorney will also walk you through the things to expect in the future.

If it’s not your first time behind bars, you can call the lawyer who represented you in the past, but only if you were happy with their legal representation. However, if you haven’t had legal counsel in the past, you will need to begin hiring one. Discussed below are tips for hiring a private defense lawyer:

  1. Talk to Lawyers You Know

You should begin searching for a lawyer by speaking to the attorneys you already know. If you see a bankruptcy, family, or accident lawyer, talk to them for recommendations. Lawyers know each other and are likely to recommend a criminal defense attorney that is right for your case. Note that even a civil lawyer can represent your case’s initial stages, such as bail hearing before hiring a criminal lawyer.

  1. Talk to Friends or Family for Referrals

If you have a friend, co-worker, or family member who has been previously arrested or charged with an offense like yours, talk to them for referrals. However, you should get referrals from family and friends who won their cases or had a favorable outcome at the end of the criminal procedure. Hiring such a lawyer can guarantee a similar result but contingent on the circumstances of your case.

  1. Check Out Lawyer Directories Like Nolo

If you want to connect with the best criminal defense lawyers in your area, the best place to look is Nolo. The lawyer reference book offers comprehensive profiles of attorneys in your locality. The information contained in the profiles will help pick a lawyer that will meet your legal needs. The good thing with lawyers listed with Nolo is that they are all accredited and possess valid practicing licenses. Their educational background, experience, area serving, and legal fees all appear on the profiles, thus enabling you to make an informed decision.

  1. Visit Courthouses

Visit a few local courthouses and sit through the hearings. If you are impressed by a particular attorney, get their business card and call later to arrange a meeting.

  1. Look Online

Today, many criminal attorney law firms have websites where you can find all the information you need about their services. So, search online for lawyers who have experience in cases similar to yours. Make sure you read their customer reviews before deciding on the legal expert to hire.

What is a Private Lawyer likely to Cost?

After you have found the right attorney, the first question you are likely to ask is how much they charge for their legal services. Some of the factors determining an attorney’s legal fees are the complexity of your case, attorney’s experience, and the geographical location.

An attorney will charge you more for a felony than for a misdemeanor. The reason being felonies carry a high risk of incarceration and require a significant number of billable hours.

Similarly, lawyers who have been in the industry for decades understand court processes and the right defenses to mount during a case, which makes them resolve cases faster than novices. Because of their reputation and ability to close cases quickly, these attorneys charge higher legal fees.

Also, lawyers who practice in big cities represent celebrities and big clients willing to pay hefty legal fees. On the other hand, those who operate in small towns deal with middle-class clients with small budgets. Therefore, they tend to charge low rates to accommodate the needs of their customers. Overhead costs of running a legal office in a city are higher than those of smaller towns. Because this cost is transferred to the clients, the charges tend to differ based on location.

Some attorneys charge on an hourly basis, while others have flat rates per case. It’s up to you to decide on the payment mode that suits you best.

Should I Represent Myself in a Criminal Case?

The decision on whether you should maintain legal guidance or not depends on the possible penalties upon conviction. If you face an infraction where there are no odds of jail or prison custody, you can represent yourself. However, if the stakes are high and a conviction for the charges in question can result in a jail or prison sentence, then you should consider having a lawyer in your corner.

Note that a minor offense conviction can carry hefty fines, result in deportation, license suspension, or increase in insurance premium. You might want to consider appearing before court with an attorney by your side in such minor offenses because a conviction might cost you more than it would cost you to retain a criminal lawyer’s legal services.

Can I Change Lawyers If I’m Unhappy With The One Representing Me?

When you enlist the services of an attorney, you have the right to receive competent representation. However, if you are unhappy with the current lawyer and doubt you will have a favorable outcome at the end of the case, you can request the judge to switch lawyers. Judges are often reluctant to change public defenders, but if the professional relationship seems almost impossible, they might grant you the chance to switch counsel. Further, if you submit proof that demonstrates the public defender is incompetent, you might be allowed to change your current legal representative.

In cases where you have hired a private attorney, you can switch them short of consent from the court. You don’t need to justify your actions or provide proof of incompetence or strained professional relationships. Your decision is final, but you should understand it’s a costly one. You would need to pay the initial attorney for the billable hours if the payment was hourly. If they had charged a flat fee, you would need to pay the full amount before switching attorneys, making this move expensive.

Keep in mind that the court date might limit your need to switch lawyers. If you are switching attorneys a few hours to trial, the new attorney will need more time to prepare for the case, which means the trial will be delayed. The prosecuting team might oppose this move because it will cause many inconveniences, especially for the witnesses. The judge might also oppose the move to push the trial forward, which might mean you won’t be switching attorneys.

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

Every U.S. citizen facing criminal charges is entitled to legal representation. The court can appoint a public defender for free, or in case they judge you as partially indigent, they can set one for you but at a reasonable fee.

The U.S. Constitution provides that everyone has a right to legal representation before sentencing. The right to a lawyer not only applies where a sentence is involved but also where you risk jail or prison sentence. Furthermore, if there is a possibility of hefty court fines being imposed upon sentencing, some states provide free legal counsel.

Many states have public defender’s (PDs) offices with licensed lawyers whose main objective is to provide legal guidance or representation to defendants who can’t raise legal fees. States have established these offices because many criminal defendants are indigent and can’t afford attorney fees.

Unfortunately, not all areas are lucky to have PD offices. In these places, government appointed lawyers represent the defendants in need of an attorney. Alternatively, courts maintain a list of lawyers whom they can contact if a defendant requests legal representation where they can’t afford one.