Most people would prefer never to have to choose a lawyer for a criminal case. But in the real world, people are confronted by situations where having a lawyer with skills in a particular area of the law becomes necessary. Being prosecuted for DUI is not something a person should undergo without the “right” lawyer. In fact, to go through the process without a lawyer is foolhardy considering a conviction could result in points on your driver’s license; soaring insurance rates; revocation or suspension of your license; high fines; a permanent criminal record; and, yes, jail time. DUI is a traffic offense, but is considered a crime.
So how does one find a “good” DUI lawyer? Start with word of mouth: ask your friends. You can also look in the phone book under “Attorneys.” Most phone books sort attorneys by practice area. Look for “criminal law;” “traffic;” or “DUI/DWI.”
It is important to understand what “experienced” means. A lawyer can be “experienced” in a wide variety of practice areas. Because DUI cases are specialized, try to locate attorneys who used to be prosecutors or public defenders. They will know the courts, the judges, the officers, and what the prosecution will use to prosecute you. Never be afraid to ask the question, “How many DUI cases have you defended?” The more questions you ask before retaining an attorney, the better your chance of retaining someone best qualified to represent you. Someone who has a “general” practice, or whose practice focuses on personal injury, is not likely to best represent a DUI case.
DUI “law” changes constantly, so you want to ask the attorneys how up-to-date they are on DUI practice. A true DUI practitioner will be able to answer immediately. They will be able to tell you about the current state of the law and how it might affect the outcome of your case.
Of course the initial consultation should be free. And the retainer should be “reasonable” depending on the facts of the case. Expect a retainer of anywhere from $300 all the way up to several thousand dollars depending on whether there was an accident; an accident with injuries; or a pure “drunk driving where nothing happens on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere.”
That retainer is used for the initial process of defending you: performing legal research; drafting and filing motions; and interviewing witnesses. You might also be charged additional fees for the paralegal, associate attorney, expert witnesses (particularly if there is a fatality involved), copies, and legal research services on top of what the attorney charges for his or her time. Expect an attorney to charge between $85 to $300 an hour for their services and be up front regarding what you can afford. Some attorneys offer a “sliding scale” fee to accommodate people on a tight budget. A complex DUI case can easily cost $10-20,000 to defend because you could ultimately end up convicted of a felony such as aggravated assault or vehicular homicide. Regardless of the cost of defense, however, one thing must always happen: the attorney must fully disclose all fees, in writing, and give you time to review and approve them. Any attorney, who pressures you, even for $300.00, should not be retained.
And never believe that because an attorney is nice, you cannot reject their offer of services. You are not entering the morass of choosing an attorney based on personality, you want someone who can effectively defend you. You should also check with the state supreme court to see whether the particular attorney has ever been subject to discipline and ask about it.
One last critical issue: if you do not understand something the attorney has told you, ask him to clarify or explain what he or she said. There could be no worse situation than retaining an attorney who cannot explain his actions or strategy in layman’s terms.
The main point is: choose carefully and ask questions. Attorneys are trained to do what you are asking them to, and all attorneys took a class in criminal law. But some attorneys are more qualified through experience and training in certain areas of the law than others. By asking questions and not being intimidated by the law, you stand a good chance of choosing an excellent, well-qualified attorney.