How Do I Choose The Right Criminal Defense Attorney?

Being charged with a criminal offense can be an extremely stressful experience. Spending the night in jail and worrying about the personal and professional consequences of a criminal conviction is truly nerve-wracking and exhausting. Although a certain amount of worry while a criminal case is pending is inevitable, the right criminal defense attorney is critical for peace of mind and an optimal result in your criminal case. 

If you are charged with a criminal offense in the Houston area, you should be prepared for your mailbox to be flooded with ads from attorneys. A search for a criminal lawyer in a search engine is just as likely to be overwhelming. So how do you find the right criminal defense attorney for your case? Below are some points to consider.

The first point is that you should hire an attorney who focuses on criminal defense. Many attorneys take any kind of case that walks in the door. The problem with an attorney that handles cases in multiple practice areas is that they are very unlikely to develop expertise in any one area. The practice of criminal defense is highly specialized. Whether it is a DWI case, a drug possession case, or a murder, an effective criminal defense attorney should have the knowledge to be able to adequately fight for his or her client. Lacking a thorough understanding of the law governing DWIs, for example, is like playing poker without understanding the rules of the game. 

Choosing a criminal defense lawyer who focuses on criminal defense is probably the single most important thing to keep in mind when choosing a lawyer. You should not be afraid to simply ask a lawyer what practice areas he focuses on and what percentage of cases is devoted to criminal defense, or even a sub-specialty like DWI. Additionally, an attorney’s website will usually be a good indicator of whether he or she focuses on criminal defense. Finally, looking at the types of professional memberships an attorney has will be a good indicator of how the attorney sees himself professionally and focuses their practice. In the Houston area, attorneys who are dedicated to the practice of criminal defense will belong to the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association (TCDLA) or Harris or Montgomery County Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association. 

A good criminal defense attorney will not only know the law, but he will also spend enough time at the criminal courthouse to know judges and staff. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this. Very often, the practice of criminal law is about relationships. This can include relationships with judges, prosecutors and court staff. Not surprisingly, when criminal defense attorneys discuss cases, one of the first questions they ask is “what court are you in?” This isn’t a coincidence – knowing the quirks and pitfalls of a particular court can make all of the difference in obtaining the best possible result in your criminal case. A strategy that might work in one court will fail in another and the importance of knowing this in advance can be critical.

Next, you should ask about a lawyer’s actual trial experience. Although an attorney may claim to focus on criminal defense, you do not want to end up being represented by a lawyer who is guaranteed to plead your case. It is important to remember that not every case will go to trial. But in order to get the best possible result, a lawyer has to be willing to consider going to trial as an option. Going to trial is the most rational decision in a large percentage of cases. But the reality is that many lawyers who call themselves criminal defense lawyers are too scared, inexperienced, or lazy to actually go to trial. This reluctance to go to trial always comes at the expense of their clients. Often, when a lawyer that has a reputation of being a criminal trial lawyer just sets a case for trial, that is often enough to get a better offer and result in a case. Trial experience is critical when choosing a criminal defense lawyer. 

In addition to trial experience, you should look for an attorney with specialized training relevant to your case. DWI cases are a good example of the importance of specialized training. It is often said that although most DWIs are misdemeanors, they can be more technically complex than murders. This is because DWI cases involve traffic stops, field sobriety tests, warrants and breath or blood testing. Each of these areas is extremely complex. A lawyer dedicated the defense of DWIs will have a firm understanding of not only the law, but will also have spent time outside of the courtroom learning about the science of breath and blood testing, and take the time to be certified in administering police balance tests. This is critical. 

Highly relevant experience is also time spent working as a prosecutor. After law school, many criminal defense attorneys work at the District Attorneys office for several years before becoming criminal defense attorneys. This is invaluable experience. Working at a prosecutor provides an attorney significant trial experience and an understanding of how a prosecutor’s office works from the inside. Understanding the inner-workings of the prosecutors office is excellent experience. Although plenty of good criminal defense attorneys never worked at the District Attorney’s Office, the experience of having worked as a prosecutor is always a bonus. 

It is also important to spend some time researching an attorney’s reputation. Although the internet is an imperfect tool (and many lawyers post reviews of their services which are obviously fake), reading reviews online is a good way to get a general sense for a lawyer’s reputation. It is important to remember that while good reviews can be faked, bad reviews will usually not be, and if you see a criminal defense attorney with several bad reviews, that might be an indication that he fails to provide excellent representation to his or her clients. 

It is also important to take into account a criminal defense lawyers communication skill. After all, while the case is going on, you will be relying on your criminal defense attorney to update you on the case progress, to let you know what to expect in court and to help you understand the facts and the law that will determine what the result will be in your case. An attorney can be a highly skilled criminal law specialist, but if he doesn’t know how to effectively convey information to you, the representation will be more difficult and stressful than it needs to be. You can begin to assess a criminal defense attorney’s communication skill from the first meeting or telephone conversation. Is the attorney able to convey information clearly? Does the attorney listen? Does the attorney let you ask questions and provide good answers? Does the attorney seem like he cares about you and your case? 

One of the most common complaints that clients make of their attorneys is actually poor communication skills and lack of responsiveness. Not surprisingly, clients of criminal defense attorneys find it very frustrating when their phone calls and emails are not returned in a timely fashion. It is a great idea to ask a criminal defense lawyer how quickly he responds to communications. Additionally, it is important to ask the attorney if he will take the time to review the evidence and law with you in detail so that you can make an informed decision on how to resolve your case. In a DWI case, for example, an attorney should review all of the evidence with a client (including the video, breath or blood results, and the offense report) so the client can ask questions and make an informed decision as to how to proceed with his or her case. Amazingly, very few attorneys take the time to do a thorough file review with their clients. 

Last but not least, it is important to find the right lawyer in your price range. In criminal defense, as in all areas, you generally pay for what you get. Experienced and effective lawyers are able to charge more because they get better results and spend more time on a given case. Many reputable attorneys will not quote fees over the phone so it may be necessary to make office consultations (which is advisable anyway). However, shopping around is usually the best way to truly assess a lawyer and the characteristics mentioned in this article. 

Attorney Jose Ceja is a dedicated criminal defense attorney who began his career as a prosecutor. As a prosecutor, he first-chaired over 50 felony trials and presented hundreds of cases to the grand jury. After leaving the prosecutor’s office, he got a job as an associate at one of the best criminal defense firms in Houston, working closely with the lead attorney. As a defense attorney, he has obtained countless not-guilty verdict, dismissals and grand jury no-bills. Mr. Ceja started his law practice in 2019 and has focused exclusively on criminal defense. 

Mr. Ceja is a member of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association (HCCLA), the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association (TCDLA), and the National College for DWI Defense. He has a perfect score from Avvo.com and has been included on the list of the best attorneys in Houston by Houstonia and H-Texas Magazine. Mr. Ceja prides himself on obtaining excellent results for each client and provides personalized attention. 

Mr. Ceja regularly practices in Harris, Montgomery, Brazoria, Fort Bend, Waller, Chambers and Liberty Counties. If you are charged with any criminal offense in the Greater Houston area, Mr. Ceja offers free consultation in person or via Zoom. Call today to schedule a free consultation.