How to Choose the Right DUI Attorney—The 10 Questions You MUST Ask Any Lawyer

Charles V. Hardenbergh
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The most important thing to remember when speaking with a potential lawyer is not to be afraid to ask questions. The best and most qualified lawyers will welcome your questions, and they will take it as a sign that you have done your homework. Remember that when you are inter­viewing an attorney, the attorney is also interviewing you to see if he or she wants to take your case.  A good lawyer would rather represent a truly prepared client, and a client who is committed to getting the best legal representation available.

Here are the 10 questions you should ask to make an informed choice of who will represent you:

1. How many years have you been in practice?

Although the answer will tell you much about the attorney’s potential experience, you should also ask, "What kind of experience do you have?" Lawyers can be listed as a “DUI Lawyer” in online directories and referral services but not have any DUI defense experience whatsoever. Also, I see more and more attorneys who have had their particular niche slow down or dry up completely who are trying to develop a traffic practice to increase their firm’s income.

2. How much experience do you have representing persons who are charged with DUI?

You should leave the attorney’s office confident that you have spoken to someone who has real expertise and experience in DUI law. DUI law is too complex to be trusted to someone who “dabbles” in DUI defense.

3. Who in the office will actually be handling the case, and what are their qualifications?

This is the most important question that you must ask. The lawyer you are speaking with might not actually be the person who works on your case or appears in court at trial. When you demand to know who is going to be your lawyer, the lawyer may respond that the firm uses a “team approach.” He or she may tell you that all their lawyers discuss your case. This is just another way of giving you the runaround, and it is a red flag. At this point you should ask, "Why does the attorney who is going to court feel inexperienced on specific issues dealing with my case, and why does he require the assistance of other lawyers from the firm?"

Firms that talk about their team approach will try to convince you that anyone on the team is as good as the hotshot partner. To use a sports analogy, you should respond by saying, “Well, Stacey King and Jack Haley were both teammates of Michael Jordan. If you were a coach, would you be just as comfortable in centering your team around Stacey King and Jack Haley, or would you rather have Michael Jordan?”

Better yet, when you start getting evasive, slick answers, you should hang up the phone or walk out of the office of this law firm. You may look at the website and see phrases such as “All our lawyers usually have some involvement in your case,” which means that their hotshot partner has no intention of going to court unless the TV cameras are there and he can walk in and get his grill on TV representing the celebrity client. The reality in these firms is that the hotshot partner is rarely if ever going to court anymore. The response of these firms when potential clients ask who will be representing them in court at trial is that the hotshot partner trains these younger lawyers, so they are just as good as Mr. Hotshot. Oh really?! To use another sports analogy, you should respond to these firms by saying, “If you were a baseball coach, who would you rather have pitching for you in the World Series—Roger Clemens or someone who attended Roger Clemens’ baseball camp?” If this other lawyer is so good, why isn’t he working for himself?

4. Are you a member of the National College for DUI Defense?”

If an attorney is a member of the NCDD, he has taken steps to specialize and make the most recent and relevant information available to assist in your trial. He has applied to and been accepted by a selective organiza­tion of attorneys who are committed to DUI advocacy.  If a lawyer does not mention prominently in his advertising that he is a member of the NCDD, it is probably because he is not!

5. Are you a former prosecutor, and if so, where were you a prosecutor?

If a lawyer does not mention prominently in his advertising that he is a former prosecutor, it is probably because he isn’t! Watch out for the phrasing used in the ads! If a law firm advertises that it has “former prosecutors” or “former prosecutor help available,” the obvious and important question that you need to ask is, “Is this former prosecutor going to be representing me in court?” The firm may be sending their newest and lowest paid associate to represent you while all the “former prosecutor” does is walk to the bank and deposit your check for a huge legal fee!

It is also important to ask your potential lawyer where he was a prose­cutor. All former prosecutor jobs are not created equal. For example, some prosecutor’s jobs are not even full-time, and they do not handle any felony matters at all. Some prosecutor’s offices are not as busy as other offices. I have prosecuted countless traffic cases as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney and also prosecuted felony cases as a Trial Counsel in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. Federal govern­ment prosecutors are thoroughly screened and painstakingly selected, and they face some of the most complicated and challenging cases in trial work today.

I have won jury trials in numerous courts in Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad. My experience as both a prosecutor and military magistrate has provided me with valuable insight into the prosecutorial and judicial perspectives, and my advocacy on behalf of the Army was recognized with official military decoration.

6. Have many cases have you taken to jury trial?

This is a crucial question and one which “separates the men from the boys” in DUI defense. Your case might need to go to trial in order to get the outcome you deserve, and it is imperative that your attorney have a significant amount of jury trial experience.

If you are speaking with a potential lawyer who tells you that his amount of jury experience is not relevant, because you do not really want a jury trial, you are being misled and you are speaking to someone who doesn’t have much—or any—jury trial experience. The fact is, in Virginia, the prosecutor has as much right to demand a jury trial on an appeal to Circuit Court on a DUI as the defendant does. In some jurisdictions, such as Arlington, Virginia, the prosecutor demands a jury trial on all DUI appeals. Experience before juries and success in jury trials is a benchmark sepa­rating the best trial lawyers from the rest of the pack. I have won jury convictions and acquittals in numerous venues. A unanimous jury verdict is hard to come by, but I have been able to deliver that result both as a prosecutor and as counsel for the defendant, and I want to do the same for you.

7. Have you ever been hired to represent another attorney on a DUI charge?

The mark of a skilled and respected trial advocate is a request for repre­sentation from one of his peers, especially when the trial can have a serious, lasting, and detrimental effect on the client attorney’s profes­sional career. No lawyer would consider stepping into court as a defen­dant unless he was convinced that he had hired a competent, ethical, dedicated attorney. I have been hired as counsel to my brethren of the Bar who have been charged with drunk driving.

8. What are the potential legal costs, including investigators, experts, and the like?

The lawyer should be honest with you about what your case might cost. You want to be secure that the lawyer is not luring you in with promises of unrealistically low fees and costs.  I charge a flat fee for legal representation, and I do not charge extra money for a second DUI?  BEWARE: Any lawyer who charges more for a second DUI because “it requires more work,” is either misleading you or is not an experienced DUI lawyer. I also offer a guarantee, which states that I will represent you for FREE on a bench trial appeal from the General District Court to Circuit Court. Try finding another Virginia DUI attorney who will give you any form of guarantee!

9. What challenges do you see in my case?

The lawyer should be able to explain to you what he or she sees as the challenges you face and what they could mean for the ultimate result.

10. What will be the outcome of my case?

A good attorney will not promise you a specific result, because it is always impossible to be certain how a case will turn out. Any other answer is dishonest and unethical. A good attorney can only promise to do his or her best job in defending you.

If you are facing a DUI charge in Virginia, call my office today at (804) 835-5127. We are standing by to help you.

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