In my role handling Michigan DUI charges in the Detroit area (Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties), I am in court just about every day for something DUI or DUI-related. I see a lot, and that includes plenty of cases besides mine. I also write quite a bit about drunk driving and driver’s license restoration cases, and no doubt have published more that just about every other lawyer combined. In this article, I want to vent about lawyers, and in a way that can help the reader, and not just allow me to blow off some steam. It’s no secret that DUI’s generate a lot of income for everyone, from the police that arrest you to the court that handles your case, any counselor you get ordered to see, and, of course, the lawyer that defends you. Even so, it pains me to see people throw their money to some lawyer that capitalizes upon their fear, while soothing their concerns with by telling them what they want to hear. If you understand this, then you can protect yourself from it.
Facing a DUI is stressful. In fact, there’s something wrong with you if you’re not worried. What happens to my license? Am I going to jail? How much will this cost? Will this affect my job? The reality is that people are at their most vulnerable when they’re afraid or overwhelmed. Being in a state of panic about a DUI is not the best mindset to have when choosing a DUI lawyer. In fact, hiring a DUI lawyer (or a lawyer for any reason) should be handled the same way you’d make any major purchase: You should be a smart consumer and do your homework. Read beyond the catchphrases like “tough” and “aggressive.” And always remember that there are no deep discount “bargains” when looking for anything of quality, on the one hand, and that you can always wind up paying too much, on the other.
I have seen plenty of cases where people have overpaid for some mediocre lawyer whose self-assessment of his or her own skill, and/or reputation, in handling DUI cases, is overrated. You have to be careful of “advice” from friends and family, as well: A lawyer who is great at trying murder cases is probably the last person to hire for a DUI (and vice-versa). The flip side, however, is even worse, because anyone whose self assessment of his or her skill results in some cut-rate price is all but screaming the fact that such an approach is based upon minimal work, maximum volume and a fast turnaround. Cheap is cheap, in every sense of the word. “Bleed ’em and plead ’em” is the phrase used by that sort of corner cutting, lowball operator. In the real world, if you take your time and weed out those who make everything sound too good – or too confusing to understand – those who play on your fears – those who tilt their noses up and offer little information but demand a very high price – and all the cut-rate, discount operations – meaning that if you really take the time to do your homework – you can and should find a good, honest lawyer…
At this point, I could go right into a schpeel about how I don’t do any of those offending things (I don’t) and that you can just cut your search short and call me. And as much as I am in business to make money, that’s not what this article is about. In the first place, I am a firm believer that DUI cases are local, and that, almost without exception, it’s best to have a lawyer from the local area handle your case. For the most part, I confine my DUI practice to Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties. I will also take cases in Lapeer and Livingston counties, but I don’t really go anywhere else. One of the most important “products” a DUI lawyer has to sell is experience, and that means knowing the Judge, and how things work in any given courthouse as much as it means understanding Michigan’s DUI laws and the cases that interpret them. “Local” is bigger here in the Metro-Detroit area than it is in the more rural, distant parts of the state. Accordingly, the entire Tri-County area is local when you’re in it, whereas in the less populated areas of the state, someone from the next county may not be considered local at all.
Another important part of the equation is that you need to hire a lawyer who is a good fit for you, as a person. Think about it this way: Assume you need a watch repaired, and it is a rare antique watch that you inherited, and the only person nearby who can fix it is a real grouch. In the final analysis, if he gets the job done right, then your watch will run fine. You may explain to a friend that, “The guy who did it was a real jerk, but now it’s as good as new.”
This isn’t the case with a DUI lawyer. Your lawyer has to get to know you, and that necessarily involves comfortable, two-way communication. The lawyer you pick not only has to address your concerns, but understand why some concerns are unique to you. This means understanding why certain issues are more important to you than they are to other people, while perhaps some concerns that matter so much to others mean less to you. Who you are as a person matters in a DUI. In most of my cases, I use that more intimate knowledge of my client to drive a better deal with the prosecutor and a better outcome with the Judge. Personally, I find that I need a minimum of 2 hours with a person at our first meeting to even begin to address the important things and have a meaningful exchange with someone I’m meeting for the first time.
A DUI case is, of course, made up of evidence. Every bit of it must be examined carefully. I believe that it is necessary, for example, and not just advisable, to obtain a copy of the police car dash-cam video in almost every case. You can be sure the flat rate, bargain operators aren’t obtaining these videos, much less watching them. The problem is that, in that one skipped step, a whole world of useful information is missed. Sure, the first priority of watching the video is to find a way to get the case dismissed, or “knocked out,” but that, admittedly, is more the exception rather than the rule. The cut-rate lawyer skips the video because he or she knows that the likelihood of finding such a catastrophic police mistake that will get the whole case thrown out of court is relatively slim. I’d argue that first, even though that may often be the case, no lawyer can or will ever find a problem with the evidence without looking for it. Second, a lawyer must never forget that the video contains a goldmine of other information that can be useful in the case. Ask any higher end DUI lawyer if he or she would skip the video in any but the rarest of cases, and you’ll get the same answer: No way.
Evidence of guilt or innocence is one thing, but the same evidence that shows a person falling-down drunk can still be extraordinarily useful for him or her in other ways. The old cliché that “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” applies here. If you’ve had any success in life, then you know that you need to take what’s at hand and make use of it, and that adversity must be overcome through sheer determination. In the DUI world, people often feel stuck with nothing more than a distant hope that their case is one of the statistical anomalies that gets thrown out of court. As a result of that, they hire some lawyer who focuses on all the things that “could” be wrong with the case, only to find out (think of the disclaimers at the bottom of every “make money fast flipping houses” or “super-duper weight loss plans” that point out something like, “results not typical”) that the evidence in their case wasn’t botched badly enough to force the Judge’s hand to dismiss it. Can I be brutally honest here? This is how the scared and weak get separated from their money. This is “prime pickings” for someone who knows how to swoop in and tell someone what they want to hear. Focus. Think about being a good consumer, and that means being skeptical and asking hard questions. Never forget that hard questions will only bother someone with something to hide.
This is right where you have to stop, slow down, and think like that good consumer. Read what lawyers have written. For my part, I love to write about and analyze what I do, probably because when I’m on the other side of the transaction, looking for something to buy or someone to hire, I like to read about and learn from this same kind of analysis. I have certainly written more than just about anyone, but in the aggregate, the effort put into that has saved me many more hours of explaining the same thing over and over again. When you’ve done your reading, you need to pick up the phone and call around. You need to get a feel for a lawyer’s office and the person answers your call. As a consumer, I ask questions, and I darn well expect the person who takes my call to be able to answer some of them. Voicemail? Goodbye. Take a message? No thanks; maybe I’ll call back (although probably not).
Let me continue being brutally honest: The whole idea of making an appointment for a consultation is a crock. When you have questions, you should be able to get answers to them right when you call. My staff has dealt with just about every DUI related issue you can imagine. How will a DUI affect your law/medical/professional license? They’ve dealt with it. What’s going to happen to my license? They’ve answered that question thousands of times. Personally, I’d run from any operation without an in-office staff member to take your call and answer at least some of your questions. Remember when I said that one of the lawyer’s most important “products” is his or her experience? That comes from being in court all the time, not sitting in the office, waiting for the phone to ring. I’m in court just about every day, frequently several times per day, so when there are questions that require me to call someone back, I often return that call from out on the road.
The more you think about this, the more you realize that for all the catchphrases, fancy website gimmicks, tally of “results” and things like testimonials (some law firms practically require every client to do one), the real yardstick by which you can measure a lawyer, and his or her “fit” for you, is how your questions are answered, whether in articles, over the phone, or both. This comes back to being a good consumer, and that means going a bit beyond just buying into what you want to hear. Take your time. Look around. Then, look more. Read, and then read more. Call, and then call again. If you merely shuck off any temptation to hire the bargain operator, remember that paying a lot doesn’t equate to anything more than being out a lot of money, take the time to read what various lawyers have written, ask meaningful questions and use good old common sense, you can almost always avoid being fleeced at a time when you’re most vulnerable. When you’re facing a DUI, find out how I answer your questions by calling my office M-F, between 8:30 and 5, at 586-465-1980. We’re here to help.