Finding a DUI Lawyer
What do I look for in a DUI lawyer?
You want more than just a talented salesman. This type of lawyer is eager to take your money with fast talk for which you get lots of promises of talent. With so much at stake, however, you need to be sure that the lawyer has the skills and training to back up those promises.
One source of information is the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory. However, that is a general resource and you can also find out whether a lawyer is a member of the National College of DUI Defense. Members of NCDD have indicated by their membership an interest in the defense of persons accused of drunk driving. Sean A. Black is a member of the National College of DUI Defense and the Georgia and National Associations of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Will the attorney I hire be the attorney who will actually handle my case?
At some firms, the lawyer you first talk to is not always the one who will handle your case. You may talk to a big-name, widely respected and experienced attorney, but your case may be turned over to associate attorneys to handle. This may be alright when you are talking about routine appearances, but you need to be sure that the lawyer you want is the one who will handle the important parts of your case.
How much should I expect to pay?
Some lawyers offer low fees. Others have a good reputation and skills to match. Don't expect to find both qualities in one lawyer. For a lawyer to have the time to spend on your case to do the best job possible, he or she has to be paid.
Criminal defense lawyers usually charge an upfront flat fee for pretrial work, rather than billing by the hour as civil attorneys do. Some have a hybrid fee structure, crediting the retainer against hourly billing. But most retainers simply cover everything needed short of trial. Some well-known DUI attorneys with statewide reputations charge $3500 to $7000 or more for a misdemeanor first offense retainer, depending on the location and the attorney's reputation. With a case where you have one or more prior convictions within five years, you can expect to pay a lot more. The retainer generally covers both the ALS hearing and the court case, except for trial, which is generally a separate charge.
Ask up front how much the daily trial fee is. A reasonable fee - one designed to adequately compensate the attorney for hours of trial preparation as well as 8 to 10 or more hours per day during the trial itself - is between $1000 and $2500 per day. Such a fee is reasonable without being primarily intended to discourage clients from pursuing a trial.
Some attorneys include the trial fee in the initial retainer. If your case is likely to be tried, this can save money for you, since the practice usually is that all similarly situated clients pay the same retainer, and many of their cases aren't tried. This allows the attorney to reduce the trial portion of the fee considerably.
Is he or she recognized by others as a leader in the field?
The best attorneys participate as speakers in drunk driving defense seminars for other lawyers. Sean Black is speaking in December 2001 at the annual Georgia DUI Institute. He is a member of the Georgia Defenders of Drinking Drivers and was recognized by that organization as "DUI Lawyer of the Year" for 2000.
Will my case be dismissed?
Dismissal of all DUI charges is a routine procedure when the defendant plea bargains for a reduced charge, such as reckless driving. When that happens, all drunk driving charges are dismissed and the client pleads guilty to the lesser charge.
As a general rule, you don't hire a good lawyer in order to plead guilty at the first court appearance.
A quick guilty plea at the first court appearance may occasionally be justified. Good lawyers prefer not to accept cases for clients who just want to plead guilty with a attorney by their side. Good DUI attorneys won't take a case like that unless it's a first offense with a high blood alcohol result and the client just wants a quick review and advice. This service takes two to four hours, including the time spent with you on the phone and in the office. So it's worth about five hundred dollars.
What about ex-cops and ex-prosecutors?
Many attorneys start off their legal careers working for the government arresting and prosecuting accused drunk drivers. Though the experience may have some benefits - familiarity with inside information - the opposite is also true - why did this person initially seek to put people like you behind bars? All in all, it's probably a wash. Nevertheless, some attorneys make the ex-cop or ex-prosecutor angle a major selling point in their marketing efforts. It's nothing to brag about that way.
Sean Black has never been a full-time prosecutor, but he spent three years as the part-time assistant Solicitor in Stephens County, so he is familiar with how that part of the process works.
Wouldn't it be best to hire a local attorney who's friendly with the judge and prosecutor?
Once again, there's pros and cons which probably balance out. But if the attorney makes it a major selling point, one begins to wonder if there's anything more substantial that the attorney has to offer.
Won't the judge be upset with me if I hire a lawyer and fight the charges instead of pleading guilty?
The constitution prohibits punishing you for asserting your right to a trial. Despite the constitution though, a very small number of judges do threaten greater penalties later for not pleading guilty early. This tactic often works with less-experienced attorneys. Other attorneys can call the judge's bluff, outsmart him or her, or arrange for a different judge to handle the case.
A good lawyer armed with a solid background in the law, and a willingness to challenge the court can often prevail over even the worst of them. After all, isn't that what you hire a good lawyer for?
But if you feel like you'll just never be able to get rid of that knot in your stomach that shows up when you question authority, and you're too frightened to fight the charges in spite of that knot, you'll have to plead guilty . . . even if you aren't. It takes courage to have things your way. Sometimes it takes a lot of it.