In my role as a Michigan criminal and DUI lawyer, I often wind up speaking with people whose cases are pending in courts beyond the geographic area where I practice. I have always believed that a lawyer should be relatively “local” to the court where a case is pending, and that’s why I only handle DUI and criminal cases in the Metropolitan Detroit area. In a recent conversation with a caller, the person (whose case was in a distant county) asked me whether she should spend the money for her own lawyer or just go with a court appointed lawyer. I knew that my answer was going to be “hire your own,” but I had to pause for a moment to think about how to say that without sounding “obvious.” This will be a rather short article that addresses the question “Should I spend the money for my own lawyer or just go with court-appointed, instead?”
The way for me to put it came quickly; just tell the truth – the unvarnished truth. Sometimes, we try to be diplomatic when we answer a person’s question. If someone asks how you like his or her new car, and even if you didn’t, and you also thought the color was horrible, you wouldn’t just bluntly say so! Can you imagine responding, “I think it’s kind of ugly, and man, that color looks like puke!” Instead, you’d probably just say something like, “Oh, wow, it’s nice and roomy.” My point, skipping all pretensions of diplomacy, is this: If you can, you should always hire your own lawyer. Let me explain why:
When I get back to my office and one of my staff tells me about a caller who is considering hiring me for a drunk driving or criminal case, but already has a lawyer, my gut reaction is 1 of 2 things: If the caller had hired the lawyer, chances are he or she doesn’t like what they’re hearing, and expected a better outcome; in other words, there’s a good chance that person is just someone else’s unhappy customer. Sometimes, of course, the person can be right and the old lawyer may just not be up to the task, or he or she is getting exactly what they paid for by hiring a “cheap” lawyer, but for the most part, in those situations, the problem is the client’s unmet or unrealistic expectations, rather than any supposed under-performance of the lawyer. I am rarely enthused about or interested in these cases, and most often decline to get involved unless the caller has made an obvious mistake by doing something like hiring the family friend lawyer who isn’t experienced with the kind of case at issue, or employed some kind of bargain, cut-rate lawyer who answers his or her own phone. Court-appointed lawyers, however, are an entirely different matter…
When the caller complains about a court-appointed attorney, the chance is much greater that the person is just being moved through the system as quickly as possible by a lawyer who doesn’t know the first thing about him or her, and probably isn’t losing any sleep over the case (if they even remember it). The grim reality is that court-appointed lawyers are never paid enough to put in the kind of time a private lawyer can. And while I’m being blunt, it also shouldn’t come as a secret that, at least in terms of handling things like DUI, indecent exposure and embezzlement cases, a court appointed lawyer is often either very new, or otherwise lacks the skills to “make it” on his or her own. As with all things, there are exceptions, but would you really believe that you’re going to find any top shelf DUI lawyers taking court appointments? In my own DUI practice, my first meeting with a new client in the office takes about 2 hours; I have to request, and then review the police report and any dash-cam video; then, I have to evaluate everything. Proper handling of even the simplest DUI involves a lot more than a quick handshake in the hallway and a quick plea. A court appointed lawyer essentially loses money if he or she spends more than an hour on a drinking and driving case, whereas in my own practice, I cannot imagine spending anything less than about 8 hours, minimum, on such a case.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that if you go to court and meet with the public defender, your DUI is just one of many cases he or she is handling that day, and you’re going to get about 5 minutes, tops, of his or her time. Court-appointed lawyers don’t even consider things like the mandatory alcohol assessment, much less understand the implications of the screening instrument used in that process, and how that directly relates to the outcome of your sentencing. In many courts, the public defender who takes your plea one day will not be the lawyer who stands beside you when you’re sentenced down the road. There is simply no circumstance in which a court-appointed lawyer can produce the best outcome possible in something like a DUI case. It’s like comparing the backseat of a taxi to that of a luxurious Mercedes. You often get what you pay for, but you will never, absolutely never get what you don’t pay for.
Thus, when my office receives a call from someone looking to hire a “different” lawyer than the one he or she already has, if I learn the person has a court appointed attorney, my first thought is that, as an upgrade, there may be something I can do for him or her. If the caller has already hired his or her own lawyer, then I usually think the person is looking for someone who can tell – or more often promise – him or her what they want to hear. Based on over 25 years’ experience, I’m usually not interested in those calls.
The implication to anyone who is wondering about going with a court-appointed lawyer is pretty obvious. To be clear, a court-appointed lawyer is still way better than no lawyer at all, and in certain cases, the results achieved by a private lawyer may be no better than those obtained by private counsel. Those cases are, however, not the norm, and anyone who can hire his or her own lawyer absolutely should. In other articles I’ve examined some of the considerations involved in the search for the “right” lawyer, but no matter how you cut it, finding the right lawyer for one’s self involves reading and doing some homework. Most people would put some real time into buying a new refrigerator or a new TV. Hiring a lawyer should be done much the same way. Be a smart consumer and check around. There is a fundamental difference between having a private lawyer who is a good fit for you rather than just being handed off as part of the herd for the public defender.