by Scott Pactor
Attorney at law
I am Criminal Defense Lawyer. I practice in Southern California, San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial. I've managed to hold down a five star Yelp profile for several years, and because of that I get a lot of calls from people who have met with other lawyers. By talking to them, I've learned some things, and I wanted to share them with other people who are thinking about hiring a criminal defense lawyer.
The main trap that people fall into is hiring a "Center" or "Group." These entities- I won't call them law offices, operate on the fringes of ethical behavior and they prey upon the fact that most people hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney are doing so for the first time, and will probably never do it again. These places will often have generic sounding names that include something group and then the telling "Center" or "Group" (although I note some sophisticated examples of this practice are abandoning the center/group.)
The way these places work is they hire SEO experts and online marketers to create an on-line advertising presence for their practice, let's call it "Pacific Law Center" to give a familiar example. There is nothing wrong about using on-line advertising, I use on-line advertising- many ethical lawyers do. However, typically what happens next is problematic. After the initial contact, the potential client or "lead" talks not to a lawyer, but rather a non-lawyer whose purpose is to vet the client and set up a meeting with an actual attorney.
These client screeners often come from a sales background. They may masquerade as a legal secretary or para-legal, but they are not. The purpose of these screeners is not to give people a fair and honest opinion about your situation, but to sell you. Running an operation like I've described requires an operational budget far beyond that of a normal attorney's office, so they have every impetus to make false representations and do what I call selling false hope.
Once a potential client has been vetted, the meeting with the actual lawyer typically involves a lot of selling of false hopes. Promises like "I'll get the case dismissed;" or "You have nothing to worry about," are combined with probing questions about the resources available, and eventually a quoted price is given. Prices are typically in line with market rates, but these operations are always looking for native potential clients willing to pay far in excess of what an average lawyer would charge.
How can you avoid this fate? First of all, you may want to skip talking to any entity that fits any of the following characteristics:
1. Has "Group" or "Center" in their name and is otherwise vague about which lawyer runs the practice.
2. Has you talk to a non-lawyer for longer then it takes to set up a phone call or meeting with a real lawyer.
3. Makes you fill out questionnaires that include questions designed to find out how much money you may have available.
If you've already gone through that process and meet with a lawyer, you want to avoid sellers of false hope: lawyers who promise that they will make the case disappear. I believe I speak on behalf of every single reputable lawyer I know, when I say that Criminal Defense Attorneys should not be in the business of selling false hope.
Another warning sign is lawyers who give you the hard sell, want immediate payment, in exchange for doing something quickly that will "make the case go away." I've often heard people say that lawyers will promise to call the District Attorney before the case is filed and prevent it from being filled. In my experience, this is almost 100% impossible and in all cases is an attempt to extract money from a client immediately.
Finally, demanding to be paid the entire fee up front is not necessarily a problem, I know many lawyers who say that is their policy, but if it comes with other indicia mentioned above, it should be a red flag.
Conversely, reputable lawyers will do things like talk to you for free on the phone, schedule a free in person consultation, talk reasonably about payment plans, and tell you if they're services aren't actually required or if they are too busy or otherwise engaged to handle your case. If you have any questions, you can call me.