I used to take court appointments, and my first job out of law school was as a public defender. I’ve seen court appointed lawyers do amazing work and I’ve seen lawyers who dabble in criminal defense by getting on the wheel completely fuck up their client’s life. Lawyers are expensive, good lawyers more so, great lawyers with local experience most of all. Most people don’t save money for a criminal defense lawyer. That would be weird unless you are a legit drug dealer in which case that’s just a smart business move.
Lawyers are expensive, good lawyers more so, great experienced lawyers most of all. Most people don’t save money for a criminal defense lawyer. That would be weird unless you are a legit drug dealer in which case that’s just a smart business move. So when you get arrested in Texas, you are looking at the real possibility of shelling out thousands for a quality defense. If you don’t have that kind of cash lying around, applying for a court-appointed lawyer is your best move.
Ok, so now you’ve got a court appointed lawyer and you don’t know if you should stay with them or not? What to do?
Step 1- Start saving money for a private (“free world”) lawyer as soon as possible. You can really go both ways at once with this. You’ve already got a free attorney provided by the court, but nothing stops your family from saving money to hire someone else. That way if you things go sideways with the court-appointed lawyer you can get someone else on the case.
Step 2- Work with your court-appointed lawyer. I get it, the lawyer that is being paid a flat rate of $350 for your case to plead isn’t treating you like their number one priority. They aren’t returning your phone calls, and you can’t get in to meet with them. Well, that’s the way the system is set up. Most places pay flat fees for court appointments. Kaufman is $500 for a felony plea. Most felony cases take 3-4 court appearances at least. Court appointed lawyers have to visit theirs clients in jail, and on top of that review the discovery and do some legal research as issues arise. That’s a minimum of 10 hours on your case for $500. No one can run a law practice on $50 an hour. So they face a dilemma, a moral hazard, which they didn’t choose. The counties set up these flat rate schemes to save money and grease the wheels of the plea machine. You want to see amazing indigent defense work; pay court-appointed lawyers the average county hourly rate for civil lawyers.
Pro Tip- Your court appointed lawyer isn’t ignoring you because they don’t like you. It’s just that the more time he spends on your case, the less he has to work on other cases that pay more. So you aren’t going to get VIP treatment all the time. But you could still see great legal work because some of the best lawyers I know take court appointments. It’s just something has to give, and robust communication outside of court is usually the thing.
Step 3- Do your homework. Research your court appointed lawyer and possible alternatives. Every lawyer starts out with no experience. It’s true. When I started out as a lawyer I didn’t know shit about anything when it came to actually working a criminal case. Law school left me ill-prepared to actual help criminal clients. I was shocked to find out that writing letter briefs to imaginary senior partners or drafting 30 pages articles on Internet Law were not skills that were in high demand in criminal practice. So having a lawyer with no experience isn’t always a deal-breaker since younger lawyers may have less overhead if they are solo, and may be able to put in a lot of hours since they don’t have other cases.
Step 3a- Research possible replacements. Find out what other lawyers charge, ask about how they would handle your case. It’s perfectly fine to lawyer shop while you have a court appointed lawyer. Do it now before you think you need someone else, because the longer a case goes on the harder it can be to change the outcome.
Step 4- Don’t be an ass to your court appointed lawyer. Guess what? Tell your court-appointed lawyer they suck and they are doing a shitty job isn’t the best motivator. If you are an asshole to your lawyer then you are only making it harder for them to do their job. What you don’t know is this criminal defense gig is fucking stressful. In Texas the game is rigged from arrest to appeal so that defendants get screwed. Defense lawyers who aren’t hacks and actual believe in this job carry a lot of stress from the awesome responsibility of fighting for your freedom. You may not get it, you may not believe it, but your lawyer wants to kick ass for you and do great work. So give them the benefit of the doubt and work with them. Until you get a new lawyer they are your champion.
Step 5- Don’t write letters to the judge or DA about how your court appointed lawyer sucks. Holy shit that’s a bad idea. First of all, the motions and letters you send to the judge aren’t going to accomplish anything. Seriously, the judge won’t even read them. They will be scanned by the clerk and just put in the file. Also, anything you say can be used against you. Second, you just alienated the one person who is working to help you.
Let me take a second to brag on the amazing public defenders in Dallas and Kaufman County. If you are lucky enough to have a lawyer from those offices, you are in good hands.