Sometimes our clients who have been charged with a crime are asking us an interesting question – why do I need to hire you, a private attorney, if I already have a free lawyer appointed by the Court? It is definitely a legitimate question, and people who are unfamiliar with the Court system, have every right to ask this question.
According to New York State laws, every criminal defendant may qualify for a free lawyer based on his or her financial circumstances. As a matter of practice, some Courts in New York State screen criminal defendants asking them questions regarding their financial situation, and some request proof of income, such as income tax returns and/or pay stubs or ownership of property. Based on the results of such screening the Judge may appoint a free lawyer, such as a staff member of Legal Aid society or a private attorney who is compensated by the county (so-called “18b” attorney). Or the Court may direct the defendant to hire his own attorney. In other Courts, such as New York City Criminal Court, as a matter of practice, the Judge usually will not screen every defendant, but the Legal Aid society may raise an issue of eligibility based on the initial screening by the Criminal Justice Agency (“CJA”).
Nevertheless, even if you are eligible for a free lawyer, you may wonder whether it is worth hiring a private one. Of course, every case is different and every person is different, but generally speaking, there are several valid reasons to retain a private attorney if you can afford one.
You can choose a private attorney based on your own research, friends and family recommendations, language and cultural preferences, experience, internet reviews, etc. While it is true that many free attorneys have extensive litigation experience, you have no control over who is assigned to your case, so you may get a very experienced lawyer or someone who just graduated a law school. Especially in misdemeanor cases, most Legal Aid attorneys will generally have less experience than a private attorney who is practicing for many years.
While your free attorney will show up for the Court appearances and generally will answer your calls and emails, their caseload is several times more than a number of cases handled by a private attorney. This is why a private attorney can spend much more time with you as a client, be it in the office, on the phone, zoom virtual meeting, or exchanging emails. Some people may be completely fine with limited communications about their case and are interested only in the final outcome. They may have patience, be very calm and never call their lawyer, just showing up in Court when told.
At the same time, we have seen plenty of clients who are genuinely nervous and very concerned with their situation and need constant detailed explanations and reassurances regarding their situation. Such clients may call us dozens of times and we have to patiently spend time explaining their situation, the rules of criminal procedure and discovery, and the general practice of plea bargain in local and federal courts based on our knowledge and experience. A free lawyer will not be able to spend as much time explaining everything and answering all questions the client may have, simply because he or she has way more cases to handle.
Another reason to hire or consult with a private attorney – criminal defense attorney, is when you have questions prior to your arrest and need an attorney to explain your rights and possibly to arrange a voluntary surrender to the police. At that juncture, the free lawyer is not appointed yet and there is simply no other option.
Another advantage of a private attorney is the ability to discuss and help with collateral issues, such as immigration, employment, professional licensing, family Court matter, etc. It is true that Legal Aid Society may refer you to an immigration attorney if you need one, but it is unlikely that they will be dealing with your suspension at work if you are a home attendant, for example, or explain to you in detail the implication of your arrest on your professional license, such as TLC, if you are an UBER driver.
Finally, many clients are looking for an attorney who speaks their language. Even though you can always get an interpreter or use google translate or some other services to help with foreign language translation, we have noticed from our own practice that a lot of people are simply more comfortable if their attorney speaks the same language and possibly even comes from the same country as the clients. The reasons for that may be psychological and emotional, but nevertheless, they are valid reasons for some clients who find themselves in a difficult and unfamiliar situation after their arrest.
We often have clients contacting us to get a second opinion on cases where they are represented by free lawyers. If you need to get a second opinion about your case, defenses, offer, plea bargaining, or consequence of the resolution of the case, please contact us as well.
As we have stated at the beginning of this article, every case is different and every client is different, so if you feel that you want to see whether a private attorney is a good fit for you, we are here to help and answer all your questions.