Setting Expectations: The Raleigh DWI Lawyer’s Dilemma

Private lawyers have a particular dilemma which, while not unique to criminal defense law, is certainly a problematic feature of it.

An ethical lawyer may never promise a particular outcome at the outset or during representation. Rule 7.1 of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct says that “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it… is likely to create an unjustified expectation about results the lawyer can achieve, or states or implies that the lawyer can achieve results by means that violate the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.”

Therefore, it would be unethical to for a lawyer to promise a particular outcome. A lawyer can give his or her professional best guess as to what a likely outcome might be. But a lawyer cannot guarantee an outcome.

This leaves potential clients and clients frustrated. After all, they have spent or are considering spending good money on a so-called professional who should know how to resolve a particular case. The problem is, truly, that every case is different. While certain cases – such as vanilla DWIs – have similarities that mean they can fall into patterns, it does not mean that your particular Raleigh DWI case is going to be resolved in such and such a manner.

For instance, when people call me for a free consultation on a Raleigh DWI, I ask them a few key questions to help discern what type of case it is, and whether there are any obvious open issues. At that point, the person will often ask: “Is this a good case or a bad case?” I can often very quickly tell them whether there are obvious issues that may result in a favorable outcome.

But I can’t be certain. I can’t tell you how many times people have walked into my office with what looks to be a terrible DWI – high BAC, no obvious issues related to the stop of the vehicle, and a seemingly thorough police officer – only to find out through my later investigation that the officer committed an error, or there is a strange gap in the State’s case. I have had clients with BAC’s as high as .23 get not guilty results or dismissals because of problems in the State’s case that meant that a judge ultimately tossed the case out of court.

Does this happen all the time? Obviously no. A high BAC is generally a bad sign. But strange things crop up in cases, and only a lawyer willing to systematically look through the case and ask questions, visit the location of the stop, watch the video, and request records can identify the flaw in the State’s case.

The guarantees I can make are that I will work hard to defend my clients. I will look at all aspects of the case. I will request video. I will visit a location in cases where that matters. I will look at other cases I have had with that particular officer to find out whether that officer is generally honest or dishonest.

But I can’t guarantee outcomes. Doing so not only is unethical, but sets the wrong expectations and leads to a damaged relationship between the attorney and client.

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.