Monday, January 19, 2015

“Hi! I'm your lawyer. If you plead guilty, I get paid double, and you'll get out of jail.”

“Hi! I'm your lawyer. If you plead guilty, I get paid double, and you'll get out of jail.”

In the USA, if you are criminally charged and too poor to hire a lawyer, then the government is required to provide you with an attorney. The myriad processes vary from state to state, county to county, and even from court to court.

There are two ways that government provides representation to the poor: either a public defender office, or an appointed attorney plan. A public defender might be funded by the state or the county. They will have a support staff, such as secretaries and investigators. Their lawyers are paid salaries, with benefits. They struggle under very large caseloads and long hours. Often, it is difficult for a defendant to be considered poor enough to qualify for their services.

A jurisdiction without any public defender office may use a less expensive appointed attorney system, where attorneys in private practice are assigned to assist poor defendants. Those attorneys are paid a very nominal fee. That fee often doesn't cover gasoline, parking, and dry cleaning. Lawyers participating in appointed attorney systems often rely on doing a volume business, to avoid losing money.
Some jurisdictions have few formal requirements for a lawyer to take such cases. The lawyer might not be required to have any secretary or staff. She may not be required to have an office, or malpractice insurance.

The judge of the court may manage the appointments and approve the payments according to the judge's priorities. Those priorities may vary by judge. Some are concerned with justice and good representation. Others focus on attorney availability, quick pleas to move the case, friendship, campaign considerations, etc.

Appointed attorneys in most jurisdictions are not paid until the case is concluded. Payment can be an unvarying fee that may not change depending on the amount or quality of work done, or the result of the case. In one local county, an attorney will be paid the very same $100.00 total fee if he concludes a case instantly by a quick guilty plea, or if he must return to court ten times to get the case dismissed. A jailed defendant's release is routinely promised, in exchange for a “voluntary” plea.

In that same county, there are other formal written rules that double the fee to a lawyer who persuades his client to plead guilty to a felony at the first appearance, and halve that same fee to the lawyer who instead persuades the prosecutor to dismiss the felony. Even a conscientious and zealous advocate must have his advice to his client subconsciously influenced by payment systems that reward an attorney for bad results.

There are too many lawyers. They owe too much money. Many come out of law school owing $150,000.00 or more. There are few jobs available for an average law graduate. They are paid very little, often less than a fast food manager. Lawyers who can't get a job, or are between jobs, may try to make ends meet by taking appointed cases.

Some defendants hire lawyers. Those defendants should remember that lawyers are only required to take one bar exam. They then can then practice nearly all areas of law. Criminal defense, personal injury, probate, divorce, and business law are as dissimilar to each other as podiatry, cardiology, ophthalmology, psychiatry and gynecology. You wouldn't see a proctologist because of a hearing problem. You shouldn't hire your divorce lawyer for your criminal case.

Many states provide specialty certification to lawyers, just as they do to doctors. Hiring a certified criminal defense specialist may be your best bet if faced with criminal charges.

Pat Montgomery
PatMontgomery[AT]Gmail.com
San Antonio, Texas

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