As Michigan criminal, driver’s license restoration and DUI lawyers, we answer a lot of questions. Interestingly, when someone begins a question by saying something like “this is probably a dumb question, but…”, it usually isn’t. However, as much my team and I are helpful, polite, and respectful, there is one really dumb question we get asked from time-to-time – “Do I need a lawyer for this?” The answer is yes, but this question deserves a thorough answer. In this 2-part article, I want to take a serious look at why a person should have a lawyer for a criminal, driver’s license restoration, or DUI case.
Let me clear up the easy stuff first: you may be able to do an okay job handling your own speeding ticket, or some other kind of civil infraction. However, if you’re thinking about dealing with any kind of misdemeanor (or felony) charge on your own, you could be making a serious mistake. Notice that I’m not saying you will ruin your life or wind up in jail. Those things probably won’t happen. But what if, down the road, you run into problems because of your record, or find out some consequence(s) from your case could have been avoided with a legal maneuver you didn’t even know about because you decided to play lawyer?
The universal maxim “you don’t know what you don’t know” really applies to everyone who tries to “play” lawyer (or doctor, electrician, etc.). There’s an old saying that, “The lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” It holds even more true for non-lawyers who try to represent themselves. You’ll notice that anytime a lawyer gets in trouble, the first thing he or she will do is hire a good lawyer. Even the best courtroom attorneys will hire an outsider lawyer if they find themselves facing criminal charges (or being sued).
Although I have never faced any criminal or OWI charges myself, my practice does use a separate law firm to handle any collections matters we have. I have 2 very qualified associate attorneys on staff, and it would cost me nothing to handle a collections case in-house. We don’t spend all day, every day, handling those kinds of cases, though, and based upon the fact that we know that spending all day, every day, concentrating our practice in and handling criminal, driver’s license restoration and DUI cases makes us really good at them, we turn over those files over to lawyers who (big surprise here,) spend all day, every day, handling them.
Ann, our senior assistant, has observed that, while a person may know how to get to the courthouse, he or she will not know exactly what to do once inside. The problem really lies in the fact that some people know a little bit about going to court and therefore mistake that for a comprehensive understanding of the process, rules and laws involved in their case.
An elementary school teacher once told me that one of the worst parts of her job was dealing with parents who thought, because they had all been through school, that somehow qualified them to be educators. Having been a student yourself doesn’t qualify you as a teacher anymore than having eyeglasses qualifies you as an optometrist.
Here is a far-from comprehensive list of questions anyone wondering, “Do I need a lawyer for this?” should ask him or herself before deciding to represent themselves:
- Do you know what agency is prosecuting your case?
(Is it the County Prosecutor, local city attorney, or a private law firm representing a municipality?)
- Do you know all the prosecutors within that agency?
(It’s usually NOT the person whose name is on your court notice, by the way.)
- Do you know which are easier to work with, and for what kind of case(s)?
(Prosecutors, like everyone else, have “pet peeves,” and if you can avoid the one who has a pet peeve about something involved in your case, you should do just that.)
- Are you familiar with all the terms of the actual law you have been accused of violating?
(Most laws are part of a larger section of laws, so just knowing a specific statute is often not good enough.)
- Do you know and understand the legal elements of the offense charged against you?
(These can be found in the Michigan Criminal Jury Instructions.)
- Do you really know what kind of plea bargains are possible in your case?
(Deals that are routine in one jurisdiction may be unlikely, or even impossible, in another.)
- Do you really know all the consequences, legalities, and requirements of the specific law that you’re considering a plea bargain to?
(Not every “plea bargain” is a bargain, and what might be a good deal for one person could wind up as a nightmare for someone else down the road.)
- Do you know what other laws affect the charge against you?
(Sometimes, one of those laws can be used to keep a conviction off of your record.)
- Do you really know your Judge?
(In other words, do you know how he or she handles cases like yours, and what “pet peeves” he or she has?)
- Do you know what kind of sentence is usually recommended by the probation department in the court where your case is pending, in cases like yours?
(Probation departments are as different as restaurants, and some courts assign a specific PO to each Judge.)
- Do you know if it is materially helpful to present a clinically sound substance use evaluation to the prosecutor before you try and negotiate a plea bargain?
(Some prosecutors are much more amenable to a plea bargain in light of an evaluation, and/or the defendant’s follow up with the recommendations made as part of it.)
- Do you know if it is materially helpful to present such an evaluation to either the probation officer or the Judge?
(This can be a great strategy in some cases, but it can be a waste of time or even completely backfire and make things worse, in others.)
- Do you know if it would be helpful to get into counseling, or start going to AA?
(In some limited cases, the answer is a big “yes,” but if not, then doing so will almost always turn out to be a big “no” that you’ll regret.)
I could go on and on, because there are a lot more questions that I could ask, and many of them are important, but here’s the kicker: the lawyer you hire should be able to answer every single one of these questions easily. If you can’t, then you’re just “playing lawyer” to your own detriment.
Consider this: If Dog-bite Dave, a personal injury lawyer, gets a call one day from his cousin, who explains that he was arrested for a DUI the night before, chances are, Dave will explain that he doesn’t do that kind of work. Although Dave is a lawyer, he knows enough to not screw around in an area where he’s not familiar. In fact, even if Dave was tempted to try and help out his cousin, just reading the questions above would be enough for him to think better and refer his cousin to someone who is as familiar with the nuances of DUI practice as Dave is with handling personal injury cases.
We’ll stop here, and pick up again, in part 2, right where we left off.