How To Hire a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you’ve been indicted in federal court, or you’re under investigation, you know you need a lawyer. You know you need the right lawyer. You may be nervous about how you make the decision to hire a lawyer. Some people hire the first lawyer to return their phone call. I think that’s a bad idea - I’d rather work with someone who returns his current client’s call than one who calls back someone he hasn’t already agreed to help. But it’s your decision.

Here are my thoughts on how to go about hiring a lawyer. That said, there’s a Wikihow on how to hire a criminal defense attorney that I think is pretty good too. You may find that useful, especially if you like pictures.

Please keep in mind, these are just considerations. There’s no single rule for which lawyer will be best for your case; these are merely things to weigh against each other.

Get the right kind of lawyer

First, make sure you hire the right kind of lawyer. If you called my law firm and said you needed a lawyer to handle a divorce, we’d be the wrong folks to call. In the same vein, make sure you don’t hire a divorce lawyer for a white-collar criminal investigation.

Most good lawyers won’t take a case they have no business doing. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, so when you’re hiring a lawyer, make sure the lawyer you’re hiring knows what they’re doing with the kind of problem you have. You don’t want the guy who does DUIs representing you in a securities fraud case. Conversely, a securities fraud lawyer may not be the right call for your DUI.

At the same time, don’t get too specific. Most of the time, what matters is whether the person has experience in the forum you’ll be in — that is, the court or courthouse — and with the kind of process you’re going through. A lawyer who has handled a health care fraud case in state court in Delaware may not be the best hire for a health care fraud case in federal court in Virginia.

There are more than 4,000 federal criminal statutes. Finding a lawyer who has handled the specific statute that applies to your case may be less important than having a lawyer who knows what she’s doing in federal court or has handled investigations against federal prosecutors or federal agents.

Don’t hire an idiot

This one is a little hard to quantify, but check out the lawyer to see if he or she is maybe not that good. Unfortunately, some lawyers get where they are more from their friendships with other lawyers than through their ability. Check out the lawyer’s background. Did she go to a reputable law school? Does she have any professional accomplishments beyond just being a lawyer? Does he teach? Or write?

None of these, on their own, can guarantee that the lawyer is the right one for you. Plenty of good lawyers went to less well-regarded law schools and plenty of bad ones went to good schools. But these are considerations that should be considered as you decide which lawyer to hire.

Hire a good communicator

Perhaps most importantly, the lawyer you hire is going to be spending a lot of time communicating with you. She’ll talk to you about the law and about the facts as you see them and as the government does. As importantly, the lawyer will be presenting your side of what happened to the government. When you talk to the lawyer, does the lawyer communicate well? If the lawyer has written anything, does it make sense?

Lawyers are, in part, professional communicators. Almost anyone can evaluate how well a person explains things. Use your judgment.


Lawyers are expensive. If you have a white-collar criminal problem or any other criminal problem in federal court, a good lawyer can cost well into six figures.

There’s one exception - the federal public defender’s office. Public defenders get a bad rap, but I think many federal public defenders offices have the finest lawyers in their jurisdiction. If you’ve been indicted and don’t have the ability to hire a lawyer, Google “federal public defender” in your jurisdiction and call them. A federal defender’s office can generally only represent you if you’ve been charged or are close to being charged, but the federal public defender’s office is a far better option than going in with a $7500 lawyer with no experience in federal court.

If you’re under investigation, don’t qualify for the public defender, or simply don’t want one, be upfront with a potential lawyer about money. Learn how they charge you.

At my law firm, we charge by the hour. Our clients agree to pay a set rate for every hour we spend on their case, plus a relatively low minimum fee. It is incredibly hard to see at the start of a case how much time it will require. If federal agents come to a person’s door and ask to speak with them, then we hear nothing again, that’s a lot less work than if a person is indicted and goes to a 12 week jury trial. We think the person with a case that requires less work should pay less money.

We also ask for a retainer at the start of the representation. That’s money that goes into an escrow account that we hold. It is, importantly, your money until we send you a bill and have earned it. Aside from any minimum fee or other funds we’ve earned, any money that’s in our trust account gets returned to you at the end of the case.

Other lawyers charge a flat fee - where they tell you one price upfront and that’s the only price you pay. We’ve generally turned away from flat fees because, particularly in federal cases, the amount of work to be done varies widely from case to case. And, while there are some exceptions, we’ve found that lawyers with a practice made up of relatively simple state court cases tend to use flat fees more heavily than lawyers who represent people in complicated federal cases.

Regardless, make sure you understand how your lawyer will figure out the fee.

Your gut

Finally, listen to your gut. If you have a bad feeling about a lawyer, if you feel like he or she simply isn’t going to give you much attention, or if you just don’t like the person, then don’t hire him or her.

You’re going to spend a lot of time with your lawyer. Your future, your family’s future, and your freedom is in that person’s hands. If you have a creeping feeling that the lawyer isn’t the right person, then the lawyer isn’t the right person.