Perhaps I should take a few minutes and discuss what a person should look for when needing to retain counsel for a legal matter. I will restrict this narrative to someone needing a lawyer for a federal criminal case, though the qualities I discuss will have broader application than just this limited discussion. Some of these comments may seem obvious or even rate a -- Duh! -- response but I want to be as certain as possible that I don't make any incorrect assumptions that the reader has greater knowledge than is the case. Federal criminal defense is not cheap, so you need to be reasonably sure your money is being spent as effectively as possible.
First, the lawyer should be admitted to the federal district or circuit (or be admittable) where the case is pending or about to be filed. I have practiced in several different federal district courts either permanently or temporarily admitted. I did a drug conspiracy/firearms case in the Central District of California federal court. I have done white collar defenses in the District of Kansas federal court. Both of these were temporary admissions for those specific cases. I have done countless arguments before the Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver where I was admitted some 36 years ago. I am admitted and have practiced in the United States Supreme Court. These diverse admissions are important because the demonstrate a lawyers wealth of experience in handling federal criminal cases in differing federal jurisdictions. Each district is virtually autonomous answering primarily to the Circuit Court. The eleven federal circuits are independent and what one circuit permits another may not. These courts all, of course, ultimately answer to the Supreme Court. One warning, be ware of wall hangings. ask how many of the courts of admission has the lawyer actually had a live case. If the answer is "none" then these admissions are just decorations.
Second, but equally as important, is the matter of experience. Not just legal experience, but federal criminal defense experience. A dear departed lawyer friend of mine used to say, "Federal court is no place for training wheels." He was absolutely right. How many cases a lawyer has handled to conclusion in federal court is a metric for the depth of knowledge he/she has learned and the wealth of experience which will inform the client on the best course(s) to pursue. Knowing which motions to file and which objections to make are not merely academic exercises. Sometimes it is better to make no motion, where tactically the issue can be sprung in a cross-examination at trial. Or the objection which will draw further attention to an issue that you hoped the missed, is the objection you should not make. New offenses, that is, something the lawyer has not specifically handled before, is not an issue if the lawyer has a solid federal criminal defense foundation. Getting "up to speed" on the offense is not a major factor in the decision of which lawyer should be retained. Also most accomplished federal criminal defense lawyers will not hesitate to recommend some one if the case is an area where the lawyer does not practice.
Third, is the competence on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Expertise in this area of federal criminal defense is beyond essential. This part of a representation is every bit as important as the guilt/innocence portion. The lawyer you retain should be able to talk with you in depth about the sentencing process and explain nature of the process. The latest statistical numbers I have seen, state that 97% of all federal cases are resolved by a plea. That means that the lawyer should know before the entry of the plea and has discussed with the client the consequences of the plea. The lawyer should explain where there are hidden enhancements possible and determine what factors are likely to appear in the pre sentence report. Such knowledge, communicated to the client is critical for a rational decision on whether to plea or go to trial. The effects on the guideline calculation by going to trial must also be explained to the client.
Finally, there is the question of when the federal criminal defense lawyer should be retained. This is the easiest part of this discussion to answer. Retention should occur as soon as it is clear that you are being questioned about any possible federal criminal offense, EVEN if you are not the apparent target of the investigation. In the last couple of years, I have had several clients who were approached by and pressured by federal law enforcement officers regarding federal criminal offenses "of which they may have knowledge". Once I was in the case, I contacted the agencies and told them to leave my clients alone. Though there was some posturing, I refused to let them talk to my clients. In these instances none of these clients were ever charged with any offense.
So, there you have an overview of considerations in hiring a federal criminal defense lawyer. I have limited my practice to federal criminal defense and I hope neither you nor your family ever need my services. But should you find yourself in such a predicament, I would be honored by your consideration of using our services.