Facing criminal charges can be intimidating and stressful. One of the first obligations the court puts on an individual accused of a crime is to “retain counsel”. In other words, the court hopes that you will find a lawyer as soon as possible to help you with your case. We strongly encourage you avoid representing yourself (see our blog on “The Self-Representing Accused” for more information on the dangers of representing yourself at trial). However, we understand that choosing a lawyer can often seem like a daunting task. There are so many lawyers to choose from and there are so many factors to consider. Here is some advice on how to sort through all the information to choose the ideal lawyer for you.
The first thing to keep in mind is that if you are facing criminal charges you should be looking for a criminal defence lawyer. You may already have a lawyer who looks after your business, taxes, will or other matters. However, finding a lawyer is not like finding a family doctor — one lawyer cannot deal with all your legal problems. The type of lawyer you select should correspond to the problem you are facing. Though there are some lawyers who do not specialize in criminal law who will take criminal law cases, most lawyers only practice in one area of law. When you begin searching for a lawyer to represent you in your criminal charges, you can make your search much easier by limiting it to criminal defence lawyers from the outset. Moreover, it is in your best interest to select a lawyer whose focus is criminal law. Criminal charges can jeopardize your livelihood and liberty, so you want to make sure that the individual who represents you is an expert in criminal matters.
Once you have limited your search to criminal defence lawyers, you will notice that there are a lot of factors which differentiate between individual practitioners of criminal law. People wading through all the information on the different lawyers out there often choose to focus on factors such as age, what law school the lawyer attended, and what firm the lawyer works with. These factors are largely irrelevant. Some young lawyers have excellent success rates — far outshining older lawyers. Some of the best lawyers choose not to work in large firms and prefer to work as sole practitioners for lifestyle reasons that have nothing to do with their legal competence. Finally, excellent criminal defence lawyers, judges and legal scholars have graduated from every Canadian law school. At the end of the day, the most relevant factors when it comes to choosing a criminal defence lawyer are cost, personality and experience.
Your budget will be a major determinant of what lawyer you retain. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is simply not the case that all the good lawyers are incredibly expensive. Moreover, some of the best lawyers in and around Toronto do a great deal of Legal Aid case work. If you do require Legal Aid, you should inquire at the Legal Aid Office closest to you about obtaining a list of lawyers in your area who take Legal Aid cases.
If you do not require Legal Aid, you must decide how much you are willing to pay for a lawyer. Remember that in some cases, a good criminal defence lawyer may be the most important investment you make in your life, as your criminal defence lawyer is the most significant person standing between you and a criminal record, large fine, conditional sentence and/or, most importantly, jail time. With that in mind, make a generous but realistic determination of what you can afford. Try asking yourself two questions: (1) “how much do I want to pay for a lawyer?” and (2) (depending on the type of charges you are facing) “how much can I pay to avoid going to jail?” or “how much can I pay to avoid having a criminal record?” or “how much can I pay to avoid these charges interfering with my ability to see my children on a regular basis?”. You should aim to find a criminal defence lawyer who charges somewhere between the answer to question (1) and the answer to question (2). Most lawyers will want to meet with you before they give you an estimate of how much your matter will cost. This is because they often have to hear the full story before they can estimate how much time and effort your matter will require. This method is in your best interest as well since the best way to learn important information about a potential criminal defence lawyer, most notably their personality, is to meet with the lawyer in person.
Personality is an important factor to consider when choosing a lawyer. You want someone who you feel comfortable with, as you will have to communicate with your lawyer consistently throughout the trial process. You also want someone who strikes you as being competent and trustworthy. Remember that this lawyer is going to be representing you in court, so if he or she doesn’t make a good first impression when you meet, he or she probably will not make a good first impression on a judge either. Other factors to look for are common sense (as your lawyer will be helping you make important life decisions) and discretion (as you will have to trust your lawyer with some of your most private personal information).
Finally, it is important to look to experience when choosing a criminal defence lawyer. By experience we do not necessarily mean age or even the total number of years the lawyer has been practicing. Rather, we mean the lawyer’s experience dealing with cases similar to your own. A lawyer who has been practicing for five years, but has accepted a high volume of weapons-related cases is far more useful to an individual facing a weapons charge than an individual practicing twenty years but taking mostly impaired driving cases. The lawyers at our offices, for example, specialize in drug-related charges, weapons-related charges, domestic assault charges, drinking and driving charges, theft charges and fraud charges. We also represent a lot of young offenders. If you have outstanding charges in any of these areas, or other similar areas, we invite you to contact our offices by calling 416-658-1818 to arrange a meeting with one of our lawyers.