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How to get the most out of your criminal defense attorney

You have found a lawyer you like. He or she seems incredibly smart and knows the law inside out. Now you must decide one thing: How can I use this person’s abilities to defend myself against a criminal charge?

Understanding both your role as a client and the attorney’s role as your attorney is necessary to present the best possible defense in a criminal charge.

Your attorney’s job: teaching, negotiating, and litigation.

People unfamiliar with lawyers may be surprised to find that most of the time lawyers spend with their clients is spent teaching. The mark of a good lawyer is the ability to explain even complex legal arguments in a way that you understand. Anyone facing a criminal charge must understand what the elements of the crime are and what evidence the prosecution has to support those elements.

Your lawyer must be a good negotiator. It is common practice for prosecutors to offer a less serious charge or a favorable sentencing recommendation to a defendant in cases where the evidence is weak. In certain cases, a prosecutor may offer a lesser charge to someone with no criminal record. Negotiation is not a one-time, winner-take-all event; rather it is an ongoing activity until the case is resolved; this means all the way to trial and sometimes even in the middle of trial.

Your lawyer must be a good litigator. In the context of a jury trial, the need for a good litigator is obvious. He or she will need similar skills before trial, as many criminal cases have legal questions that must be answered by a judge. For example, will a particular statement be admitted as evidence? The process of asking the judge for an answer is called a Motion Hearing. The outcome of a Motion Hearing may be critical to your case. Some Motions, for example, a Motion for Probable Cause, can determine whether your case is dismissed before it goes to trial.

The Defender’s Job

You are the one who has to live with the consequences of your decisions, so your job is to understand what your choices are and the ramifications of those choices.

To understand your options, you need to ask questions. Never feel shy about asking questions, it is your attorney’s job to make sure you understand everything. A good lawyer will be able to answer most of your questions up front; probably when your options are initially explained to you. It’s easy to become overloaded with information during your first meeting or two, so don’t be afraid to write down your questions ahead of time.

Generally speaking, there are four options in any criminal case: First, plead guilty to something. Second, look for some form of alternative resolution. Third, whether or not to file motions. Fourth, go or not to trial.

Pleading guilty can mean a number of things. He could plead guilty to the charge as is. The only real issue is whether or not you and the prosecutor can agree on a sentence. If the prosecutor has offered a misdemeanor, you could plead guilty to the amended charge. This new crime may or may not be something you are actually guilty of, but since the consequences are less severe than the original crime charged, it may be acceptable to both parties. You could plead guilty using an “Alford” plea. This is where you state in advance that you do not believe you are guilty, but that you will plead guilty to take advantage of the District Attorney’s sentencing recommendation. In an Alford guilty plea, you must also agree that there is a substantial likelihood that a judge or jury will find you guilty if the case goes to trial.

In less serious criminal cases, there may be alternatives to Plead Guilty or Go to Trial. For example, in some misdemeanors, the law allows for a “Misdemeanor Compromise” where the Defendant and the Victim agree to settle the matter between themselves. You can often see this in third-degree robbery cases, such as shoplifting. The thief agrees to compensate the store owner and the store owner agrees that the criminal case can be dropped. There are other examples of this, such as a pretrial diversion agreement. In a PTDA, the defendant agrees to do (or not do) certain things and if he or she complies, then the case is dismissed. Unfortunately, alternative resolutions are not available in all cases.

In many criminal cases, there are legal questions that must be answered by a judge. The most common questions involve whether or not Prosecutors can use evidence against a Defendant. Examples may include: statements, test results, or other physical items.

Either Party can ask a judge to rule on whether or not something will be allowed as evidence. This is usually done at a Motion Hearing. As the Defendant, your job is to understand what is at stake during the Motion Hearing and whether or not there is any risk in having the hearing. The outcome of a Motion Hearing can range from having no impact on your case to requiring the dismissal of the charges against you.

The final arbiter of justice is trial by jury. Whether or not your case is worth going to trial is something you should trust your lawyer for. The outcome of a trial is easy: either you win or you lose. If you win, then the case is over and you are done with the court. If you lose, judges tend to give you a little more jail time and a little more fines than you would have gotten if you had simply pleaded guilty. Whether a judge will do that in a particular case depends on how things went at trial. If you had a good case but the jury found you guilty anyway, a judge may take that into account when sentencing. I have certainly had cases where we went to trial and lost, but my client ended up with a better sentence than he would have received if he had pleaded guilty early.


Speaking with an experienced and aggressive attorney can take an incredible amount of stress out of your case. It can also create a problem: The temptation to let the “professional” handle your case. Don’t fall into this trap. No matter how smart or well educated your attorney is, he or she will not be able to get the resolution you want if they don’t know what it is. Your lawyer will count on you to keep them informed of your needs and wishes just as much as you will count on your lawyer for good advice.


To get the most out of your criminal defense attorney, get involved in your own defense. Ask questions, know your charge, and be prepared to make the final decision about how you want to resolve your case.

Copyright (c) 2007 The Law Office of Cahoon. All rights reserved.

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