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Leonard Frieling May 1, 2023

How to choose a lawyer

“How to choose a lawyer” is the first question asked by a criminal defendant. Whether someone is already charged or just being investigated, the choice of lawyer may be the single most important decision a defendant must make.

 The selected lawyer must have several qualifications. Talent, knowledge, reputation and dedication are excellent starting points. Most import is the willingness of the lawyer to do the work!

Confidence in the potential lawyer is also critical. If you don’t have confidence in the lawyer from the beginning, stop immediately and keep walking down the road. The potential lawyer might be the best around, but if you don’t have confidence in the attorney from the start, don’t even start. There are many decisions which a client must make as a case progresses. If you do not have confidence in the lawyer at the start, what changes as the case progresses, as the decisions become more complex and more critical?  Some decisions will be easy. Some will be most difficult. If you are questioning the attorney advice from the start, what happens as case progresses?

Assuming you have vetted the lawyer and confirmed that they are knowledgeable where required, what more is needed? Regardless of skill, experience, and knowledge, if you do not have confidence in the lawyer being considered, you’ll find yourself back where you started: confused and alone.

“How much justice can you afford?” is a very real question. A more expensive lawyer may be terrible. A cheap lawyer may be fabulous. BUT an underpaid lawyer is like a racecar with no petrol. The car might be able to go 150 mph, but goes nowhere without gasoline.

While spending more on your lawyer is no guarantee of great representation or of a great result, spending too little can be a very dangerous gamble. I have watched many hundreds of lawyers at work, in and out of court. I have represented perhaps thousands of defendants in my career so far.  What may matter the most is whether or not the lawyer actually does the work. Frequently the prosecutor, (the deputy district attorney for your case), will, as a very practical challenge, be limited in the time they can dedicate to a case. The DDA (deputy district attorney) has little or no control over their case load. The reality is that the facts and the law frequently do not initially appear to help the defense. What the defense lawyer does have control over is the amount of time and effort put into  the defense.

Most of the time, more work by the defense attorney leads to a better result for you, the defendant. Changing the facts is difficult. Changing the law is difficult. Doing the work, putting in the effort and the time, is one of the few things totally within the power of the defense attorney. My experience, over 45 years in courtrooms seeing other lawyers at work, and in my own cases, ranging from municipal court cases with no more at risk than a fine, to federal court cases where the risk is decades in federal prison, has made it absolutely clear that nothing leads to a great result more than a lawyer who actually does the work! As simple as that sounds, finding a lawyer willing to sharpen her pencils and actually do the work is more easily said than done. .

Is your lawyer going to view the scene of the alleged crime? Is your lawyer going to take the time and make the effort to view the physical evidence in the case? Is your lawyer going to rely on their memory alone regarding the applicable law, or are they going to do the research to build upon what they already know about the area of law?

The welcoming speech to incoming law students from the late and deservedly famous Professor Alfred Kinoy at Rutgers Law School stressed “doing the work.” He stressed the importance of doing the legal research. At least one of the lives he saved was only saved because he cracked the books. No lawyers know it all. A lawyer who claims to know it all is either undiscovered, or is a liar. A lawyer willing to open the books and do the necessary research is the lawyer more likely to get the better result.

So, you must have a lawyer you trust, a lawyer who has the necessary skills, knowledge and experience, and a lawyer who is willing to do the work. Sounds simple? Of course it is not simple. But it is absolutely essential. Surgery may start with a scalpel, but regardless of how good the initial cut might be, the sewing at the end can be just as important if not more so. Great lawyering, and therefore great results, must include all of the pieces, not just most of them. No one part can be left out. Spending more money on representation suggests that the lawyer will do more work. It does not guarantee that the work will be done. DDA’s usually do not roll over and surrender because their opposing defense attorney was expensive. But a lawyer who charges too little frequently cannot, as a practical matter, put the hours into the case. While reputation and history in court certainly matters, the lawyer fresh out of the bar exam can get the best result if they do the most work.    


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