Court Appointed Lawyers – Criminal Defense
We rarely discuss criminal law on this site, primarily because it's hard to envision any example EVER where a judge would allow a party to have a lawyer and the party would choose instead to represent themselves.
However, we have area that we get asked about a lot and that is the topic of court appointed lawyers for a criminal defendant so we thought we'd take this chance to discuss the topic in a general manner.
There are many very, very good lawyers out there who do court appointed criminal cases. There are also many very, very bad lawyers who do them. Unfortunately, that's the case with any areas of the law or any other business or profession.
One main thing that you usually don't get with court appointed lawyers is the same degree of pampering and hand holding you can require if you are retaining the attorney and paying the bill. Most court appointed attorneys are paid a fraction of their normal rate and, in most cases, get paid a flat fee for the case no matter how much work gets put into it. So what that means is the person using a court appointed attorney doesn't get to make the demands on their time that a "paying" client does. In my own experience, I had one client who wanted to meet once a week to discuss their case so we did and they got billed for whatever time it took, in increments of an hour, to prepare for the meeting and then to have it. It was okay with them, they were willing to pay, we discussed how much extra money they were spending and they wanted to do it just to be reassured and so any time we did anything in the case it involved additional time and expense.
On the other hand, many court appointed cases had the same motions filed, the same degree of preparation went into their hearings and trials but the difference is they didn't get to meet about everything and discuss it in detail. I could answer questions but it was usually when we were meeting about another aspect of their case and the meetings were rare.
There's another reason for this. I learned as a young lawyer that when a person isn't paying you for your time, then they don't mind wasting it. They will have every relative, neighbor, and friend calling even though there is no reason to talk to them. They will want you to file repeated, useless motions that really have no purpose other than making you look like you're busy.
However, a person who has a court appointed lawyer is still entitled to the same professional representation and the attorney should still do whatever work is necessary to ensure that the client gets the same result in the end as if they been a person paying by the hour.
However, the most important thing for a defendant in a criminal case to know about their lawyer is whether they will and have taken cases to trial.
Many lawyers want people to believe they are a trial lawyer but, unfortunately, most aren't. Most lawyers don't take two cases a year to trial. They are going to do everything possible to get the case settled via a plea bargain (very, very few criminal cases actually get dismissed).
What you want, whether you are paying for the lawyer or you are using one who has been court appointed, is a lawyer who can evaluate the case, do the proper work, and then offer you their opinion on whether the deal is a good one or not. Then, you want the lawyer to follow your instructions and take the case to trial if you tell them you do not want the plea bargain.
Ultimately, it should always be the client's decision on whether they want a trial or not since they are the ones who have to live with the result either way. The client should listen to the lawyer's opinion and evaluation and then decide whether they can live with the plea bargain or they want to take their chances at trial.
If the lawyer is one known for going to trial and doing a good job, that makes it more likely the District Attorney will offer a good deal since they don't want to lose at trial. However, in every legal community there are some lawyer that everybody knows are not going to pick a jury and do a trial and those lawyers are the ones who are doing their client a disservice since they will ultimately take whatever deal is offered.
That's probably the biggest advantage to hiring a lawyer over using one who is court appointed, you can pick the one you use. Getting a court appointed lawyer is always a gamble, you may get a great one or you may get a terrible one. If you invest your money in a lawyer, you can get whichever one you want, assuming you can pay their price.