Hiring a Raleigh criminal lawyer in a tough economy

The economy has hit everyone hard, including lawyers. The NALP, the organization that establishes rules and regulations with respect to hiring at large- and medium-sized law firms, estimates that there are some 42,000 lawyers graduating each year, and only about 30,000 jobs.

In addition, the collapse of big law firms and the general downsizing at other law firms, mean that young, recent graduates from law school are finding it incredibly difficult to find good jobs. Given that a legal education, even at an in-state school such as the University of North Carolina, can cost more than $100,000 when one factors in living expenses, the average graduate is coming out of law schools with between $60,000 and $120,000 in debt.

This debt is on top of any undergraduate debt that was deferred while the person went to law school. That’s as much as a mortgage on a new home!

Many law schools, who used to look at small firm or solo practitioners with disdain, are now encouraging their students go strike out on their own.

As someone who owns and operates a small firm, I am incredibly happy at the choice, and have been able to personally help hundreds of people in Wake County and in other counties in North Carolina defend against criminal charges. We’ve been able to achieve some outstanding results, and the vast majority of my clients are pleased with the services we provide.

So I’m a huge fan of the small firm. After all, before the advent of the large firm in the 1920s, most lawyers practiced is small- or solo-practitioner arrangements.

But you, the consumer, should be aware of what you’re getting. I’ve seen even relatively minor traffic tickets bungled by inexperienced lawyers who end up costing their clients their driving privileges. Given that young lawyers often charge cut-rate fees, it might be enticing to hire someone at a low cost.

But in the criminal setting, the legal fee is only one cost associated with a lawyer. While no lawyer can ever guarantee a result – and if you find a lawyer who does guarantee a result, run from the office – hiring an experienced, conscientious, smart, and thorough Raleigh criminal lawyer can make a difference, even in comparatively minor cases.

What questions should you ask? First, find out how many years the lawyer has been practicing. While even long-practicing lawyers may not be very good, years-in-practice can be one indicator of whether the lawyer has enough experience to handle your case.

Second, avoid a Raleigh criminal lawyer who practices in multiple areas. Just as you would not hire a general surgeon to do complicated brain surgery, you don’t want to hire a general lawyer to handle your criminal matter. Find a criminal lawyer. The criminal lawyer won’t cost you any more money, but should know about criminal law much better than the lawyer who practices criminal law, family law, civil law, personal injury law. Someone young lawyers – and even some older lawyers – say they practice in multiple areas. And maybe they have taken a case here and there in each area. But the law can be complicated, and being a jack of all trades is also a way of being a master of none.

For the record, I practice two types of law: Criminal law, and bankruptcy law. That’s it. If someone calls about a divorce matter, I refer them to an excellent divorce attorney. I don’t practice in areas where other people focus their expertise. I leave those areas to them, and focus on criminal law.

Third, find out whether the lawyer you’re hiring has support staff. I have two paralegals, one who speaks Spanish and one who is a bankruptcy paralegal. In addition to this support staff, I have good working relationships with some excellent lawyers who can step in if I get sick or have conflicting appointments.

You certainly want to be sure that whatever lawyer you have is able to bring in more “troops” in case they run into trouble, or in the event your case turns out to be more complicated than originally imagined.

When you’re meeting with the lawyer, look around. Does it look like a real office? Or is it a cheap executive suite shared with several other freshly-minted lawyers? Are there other people around? Some people just opening a law firm may not even have a copier or law books. While these things don’t guarantee your lawyer is a good lawyer, it does suggest whether the lawyer has spent enough of his own money in building out a law firm that he won’t be gone tomorrow when you need him.

(By the same token, you may not want to hire a lawyer who has over-invested in fancy marble. The marble and mahogany is not going to win your case.)

Fourth, find out whether the lawyer you’re interviewing may actually fight for you. While approximately 95 percent of all cases in the United States are resolved by plea, some lawyers may start off the conversation by recommending a plea even before they’ve had a chance to review the evidence.

This is especially true in DWI cases. In North Carolina, there is no reduction from a DWI charge to a lesser charge in exchange for a plea. While many DWIs do resolve in a plea, you do want to find out whether your lawyer is willing and eager to go to trial if you have a case worth litigating. Ask about this.

Again, the tough economy has hurt everyone. It may be tempting to hire a newly minted Raleigh lawyer charging rock-bottom prices. In the end, however, such a choice may end up costing you more than you think.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.