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 How To Hire a Defense Attorney 

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Michael Santos

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If you’ve been charged with a crime, you need to know how to hire a defense attorney. What do you know about hiring a lawyer?

The reality is that defendants who do not know how to hire a defense attorney put themselves at a real disadvantage. Many defendants simply type: “hire a defense attorney” into a search engine. They connect with a lawyer. The defendant describes the basics of their case. Then the defense attorney quotes a price. If the defendant feels comfortable with the conversation, the defendant agrees to hire the defense attorney

That’s a mistake.

Unfortunately, a simple conversation with a defense attorney doesn’t provide defendants with enough information. The defendant who doesn’t have experience should take precautions. Many people in federal prison serve sentences that are far longer than necessary. They serve longer sentences because the defense attorney they hired misled them.

Hiring a defense attorney is one of the most important decisions a defendant can make. The wrong defense attorney can put a defendant at a real disadvantage. I know that first hand.

I didn’t know how to hire a defense attorney!

A federal grand jury in the Western District of Washington indicted me back in 1987. I hired a defense attorney from the Southern District of Florida. That was only one of many very bad decisions that I made. Yet that bad decision resulted in my serving a much longer sentence than I would have served if I had made a better decision at the start.

In truth, I didn’t know how to hire a defense attorney. I’d never been in trouble before. The defense attorney that I hired told me exactly what I wanted to hear. He told me that there was a big difference between an indictment and a conviction. That half-truth prompted me to hire him. Yet I made a huge mistake when I hired a defense attorney.

Conviction Statistics:

In truth, when the federal government indicts a defendant, the chances of a guilty verdict and a sentencing hearing go up dramatically. Some say that the federal government convicts more than 80% of the people that receive an indictment. When hiring a defense attorney, the defendant will be well served if he hires a defense attorney that has a robust practice of preparing individuals for sentencing.

Preparing for sentencing requires extensive knowledge of the federal sentencing guidelines. Although the guidelines are not mandatory, many federal judges use those guidelines as a starting point. To the extent that defendants understand more about the conviction rates in the federal system, they will want to learn more about sentencing guidelines. Defendants that know and understand more about the system help themselves. They will be able to interact and collaborate with defense attorneys more effectively.

My friend and partner Shon Hopwood is an expert. Shon is a law professor at Georgetown Law School. His real expertise is in appellate law and understanding the federal criminal justice system. We cofounded Prison Professors because we wanted to assist people that face prosecution, sentencing, and prison.

Our prisons are filled with people that should be serving much shorter sentences. If those individuals had more insight with regard to how they should choose a criminal defense attorney, they may have had a better outcome.

If your attorney tells you that he or she is an expert in all areas, I suggest that you proceed with caution. Here’s why. The law is incredibly complex. Take jurisdictions for example.


In our country, we have 53 different jurisdictions. Each state has its own criminal code, making for 50 different jurisdictions. The DC Code is another jurisdiction. Then there is the military code, which provides yet another jurisdiction. And then we have the federal government, which provides for another jurisdiction.

Is it conceivable that one defense attorney is an expert in every jurisdiction? I would say it’s highly unlikely.

Criminal Code:

Besides the many different jurisdictions, each criminal code publishes thousands of different crimes. There are violent crimes and nonviolent crimes. There are crimes against nature. Some crimes have victims, while other crimes do not have any identifiable victims. Defendants cannot be expert in all areas.

Two crucial points when wondering how to hire a defense attorney:

When wondering how to hire a defense attorney, a defendant would do well to look for someone that is honest. Then, the defendant should look for someone who has a depth and breadth of experience in a particular area of the law, and in the appropriate jurisdiction. Do not hire a defense attorney from Miami, as I did, if you’ve been charged in Seattle. If the defendant doesn’t know how to hire a defense attorney, then the defendant should seek a credible resource for guidance.

The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice published “New Tools for A Data-Driven Criminal Justice System.” That article describes why it’s so essential for defendants to prepare themselves well if they’re facing prosecution, sentencing, or prison.

Georgetown Law Professor Shon Hopwood is an expert on sentencing and preparing for prison. That’s why I recommend Shon to anyone who needs to hire a defense attorney. Shon is honest. And Shon is an expert when it comes to appealing convictions. Since Shon doesn’t represent defendants in trial proceedings, he can provide an unbiased assessment. He knows how to spot a great defense attorney—in any jurisdiction.

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