What to look for in a criminal defense lawyer

What to Look for in a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Choosing the right criminal defense lawyer can have a profound impact on your life and your future. There are several factors that you should consider when making your decision, including reputation, experience, cost and your personal comfort level with your attorney.

As a Houston criminal defense lawyer with over a decade in legal practice, I am actually writing about my own field of law, and you may decide to contact me regarding legal representation.

However, the intent of this article is simply to give the reader (hopefully) valuable information based on my experience as a criminal attorney that you can use to make your own informed decision about a critical matter, regardless of where you are located or what your legal situation happens to be.


Naturally you will want to be represented by an attorney who is experienced and comes well-recommended. You can read reviews and see attorney ratings online, and you may be able to get referrals from professional organizations in your state & locality. (For example, the Texas State Bar offers lawyer referral services.)

Will the most highly recommended and top rated lawyer provide the right representation for your situation? The answer is that it depends. There is a complex interaction of factors that should all probably play a role in your decision.

In other words, there is no one best lawyer for all situations – there is only the best lawyer for you, and your particular case.

Law Firm Size

You will discover that there are very large law firms, very small law firms, and solo practitioners all offering criminal defense services, with varying costs not neccesarily correlated to the firm size.

A large law firm will tend to be organized such that you will interact with non-attorney staff with regard to administrative and financial matters, and only deal with your attorney in the context of your legal case.

When exploring a law firm that employs multiple attorneys, you will want to inquire as to whether the attorney handing your initial consultation is the same attorney who will oversee your case. If not, you may want to request a consultation with the attorney who will be representing you before moving forward, as your level of comfort and ease with your lawyer is deeply important, and I would argue that it will tend to be strongly correlated with the likelihood of obtaining the best possible outcome in your case.

With a smaller firm or solo practitioner, you will often deal only with your attorney for the most part, or even exclusively, with regards to both financial and legal matters.

Things to Consider in your Initial Consultation

A consultation with a prospective attorney is part of the process of engaging legal representation, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking hard questions. In fact, you should take some time before a consultation with a prospective attorney to write down some questions, so that you are prepared, and end up getting all of the information that you need.

Your questions should include asking about fees and payment schedules, the attorney’s ideas about a defense strategy, and how they will deal with prosecutors. This last item will likely be an especially important aspect of your case – remember, most criminal prosecutions do not go to trial at all, and instead the outcome is negotiated by your lawyer with the prosecution, so you need to know that your attorney is an experienced negotiator and has a solid game plan.

It would also be prudent to inquire about the attorney’s current caseload, and timeline for handing your case.

Remember that a consultation with a prospective attorney is an opportunity for both you and the lawyer to find out whether your case is a good fit for this particular attorney, and if they think so, why should you hire him or her?

Your particular case may or may not be a good fit for a particular lawyer. If not, they will probably tell you so. By the same token, there is nothing to be embarrassed about if you decide that it’s not a good fit for you.

Initial Consultation Red Flags

Attorneys are, of course, people, and like everyone else, each one has his or her own personality and approach. I have interacted with hundreds if not thousands of attorneys, and I can say firsthand that no one particular communication style is necessarily the most effective in court or in negotiations with the prosecution.

Some people, and some lawyers, are very upbeat, and some may seem very direct. However, I would encourage you to be cautious about two somewhat opposite approaches – big promises and intimidation.

Big Promises and Guarantees

A wise and ethical attorney simply cannot be certain about the outcome of a case without at least first reviewing firsthand the evidence, documents and reports from the prosecution. Upon hearing your description of your case, a lawyer may express to you that he or she feels confident about a good outcome based on what you have told them. However, your version of the events is only one part of the puzzle.

If they tell you it’s a slam dunk, perhaps they legitimately believe that it is, and perhaps they are even right. But the proof in the pudding, so to speak. Be aware that the best and most ethical attorneys do not guarantee outcomes.

Intimidation Tactics

If an attorney seems to be trying to make you feel that he or she is the only game in town, and the outlook for your case is absolutely grim unless you hire them and them only, you should at the very least consider meeting with some other attorney(s) to get their perspective. Try to avoid being intimidated into making a particular decision.

Caseload, Expense, Experience

You may be thinking that you want the most experienced lawyer in your area. You also probably would like for him or her to work on your case and your case only, until it’s finished. And it should all come in at an extremely reasonable cost.

Well, that certainly sounds like an ideal and winning combination, and it is of course very natural to seek such a combination. In the real world, your decision will likely be based on an interrelated combination of all of these factors.


Experience is an essential attribute that you should absolutely look for in a criminal defense attorney. On the other hand, so is energy, interest and attention to your case.

You may find in some cases that an older attorney with a wealth of experience is not as energetic and aggressive as he or she may once have been. (Nothing wrong with that.) In some cases, a younger, highly skilled attorney with some solid experience and an energetic and aggressive level of attention and enthusiasm for your case is a better choice.

On the other hand, there are young and eager attorneys who are not very talented or simply don’t have the experience to navigate your case to its best possible outcome. And, of course, a very seasoned and experienced attorney may be as sharp as a tack, know exactly how to approach your case, and have the energy to go the distance if there is a bump in the road.

I suppose the point here is that there is no single rule about experience. The absolute best attorney for your situation, right here and right now, could be a lawyer at the early, middle or late stage of their career. It absolutely depends on the individual.

Caseload and Expense

Earlier, I suggested that in your initial consultation with your prospective criminal defense lawyer, you inquire about the attorney’s caseload. Why? Simply put, because the number of cases, and the complexity and stage (has the case gone to trial?) of those cases may well have an impact on the amount of time and energy your lawyer has available for your case and your defense.

Time is Money

Financial considerations do tend to play some sort of role in most people’s decisions with regard to hiring legal representation in a criminal case, and there is nothing wrong or uncommon about that.

And yes, as for most people, time is money for a criminal defense attorney. How many cases he or she is handling, and the associated fees for those cases, determine their income. You may discover that various large law firms and smaller law firms and solo practitioners all differ substantially in terms of fees, and that it is not neccesarily the case that a large firm is more expensive, or that a small firm is more affordable. In fact, in some cases it may be exactly the opposite.

However, the picture may become more clear as you make inquiries, and what you will probably discover is this: regardless of firm size, more affordable attorneys may tend to have bigger caseloads, and attorneys who can afford to focus on only a small number of clients at any given time are able to do so because – you guessed it – they are substantially more expensive.

The exceptional category that you are likely to encounter is smaller, newer law firms, and younger solo practitioners, who are engaged in building a base of clients. Such firms can be made up of highly skilled, experienced and talented lawyers with, in some cases, a smaller caseload, who are nevertheless relatively affordable.

Hopefully I’ve shared some valuable information and experience with you, and I sincerely hope that you find it helpful in your path to resolving your situation, and wish you the best of luck.

And of course, if you do need criminal defense representation in the Houston, Texas area, please feel welcome to give me a call at (832) 315-6283.

I am available to my clients 24 hours per day.

-Nathaniel Pitoniak