You Think You Can Go It Alone: A Friday the 13th Horror Story

I can’t tell you how many times I have answered the Nicol Gersch Law Offices phone to hear: “I have court next week, and I need to hire an attorney!” We are all procrastinators in some sense (except maybe my sister, who’s been early to everything her whole life, I swear). But putting off hiring an attorney in a criminal case? Really?!  Read on to learn why procrastinating clients are one of my biggest fears, in honor of Friday the 13th.

Often, the reason people give me for procrastinating is simply: “I thought I could handle it alone.” But I can tell you from common sense and personal experience that not engaging the help of an experienced attorney does far more harm than good.

Consider What’s on the Line & Be Honest about Your Ability to Handle It

I regularly tell people through free, initial 30-minute consultations whether I think they can go it alone or not. Traffic cases, municipal cases – sure, maybe you can handle those alone. I usually advise prospective clients charged with minor offenses to talk to the DA to find out what the offer is and ask the DA to write it out, so they can consider it carefully. With the offer in hand, I can then tell you whether it’s a good offer, whether you might do better with me as your attorney, or whether it’s just not worth the fight. (Typically, this requires a prospective client to call me before the first appearance, though.)

For more serious criminal offenses, however, there is simply too much on the line to attempt to go it alone. Rights, privileges – even your freedom is at stake in these cases. To hire an attorney can help with your defense and help mitigate the punishment and penalties. Also remember that a criminal charge can have far-reaching consequences. A simple (and very common) Minor in Possession charge can affect federal student loan distribution. A DUI/DWAI can affect your driving privileges for years after the event itself. Consider the potential impacts of a more serious offense.

When You Realize You’re in too Deep

The moment when it finally hits that you’re in too deep can be terrifying. Don’t panic but DO act quickly and find legal help. A lawyer can usually get at least one continuance when they’re new to the case, and you can typically go to the first appearance alone if you must, since these initial hearings tend to be procedural in nature. Your newly hired attorney can provide you with scheduling information for setting a new court appearance or may be able to pre-clear a date with court clerks in advance. In any event, you still have to be there in person to receive the date and promise to come back for the next court date.

If you are hiring an attorney after the initial appearance, it’s imperative that you appear at all of your court dates – even if your new attorney cannot go with you. By failing to appear, you are at risk of a warrant for Failure to Appear (FTA), which will only put you in a worse position than you’re already in.

When you’ve found an attorney that you want to talk to – even if you’re unsure they are the one you want to hire – you should be prepared to quickly hand over all the information you have on your case. Make an effort to at least know what you’re being charged with; better yet, email or snap a picture of your paperwork. If you are sophisticated enough to have requested and received initial discovery on your case, also send that. Even if it’s just an initial consultation, anything you send an attorney (even if you end up not hiring that person) is confidential.

Finally, don’t be afraid to meet with the District Attorney by yourself. Depending on when you finally decide to bring an attorney onto your case, you might not have a choice in the matter. But here are some things to remember if you’re flying solo during that meeting:

  1. Explicitly state that you are not waiving your rights by talking to him or her.
  2. Ask what the plea deal is and ask the DA to write it down for you.
  3. Explain that you want an attorney and/or need some time to consider the deal and the ramifications of accepting or rejecting the deal.
  4. Do not talk about the facts of the case. Not even a little.

After that meeting, talk to an attorney immediately.

Advance Planning Is Important – Attorneys Are Human Too

It’s important to remember that there are two people involved in the attorney-client relationship. You may be facing intense time pressures and deadlines around your case, but it’s likely that any attorney you talk with will be facing similar time pressures and commitments from multiple angles.

I do everything I can to help clients who are rushing to find a trusted attorney. Yes, I can go to court with you – if my schedule allows; if I have childcare arranged for my son; if I don’t have another client obligation. But even if the stars align perfectly, there’s little chance that I’ll be adequately prepared for your court date when I only have a week (or less) to prepare. And what are the chances that you’ll want me to represent you if I’m not prepared? If you want me to be at the top of my game when representing you – which you should – it’s important that you give me the time and advance notice necessary to do so.

Whatever stage of the case – it’s never too late

I always advocate for having a trusted and experienced attorney on your team immediately after you’ve been charged with a criminal offense. Thinking you can handle the criminal process and system alone is risky. Even if you could competently and adequately navigate your own case, isn’t it better to have help? But things don’t always work out this way and even the best of us can put off getting help.

No matter if you’re halfway through your case, talking with an attorney is never going to make things worse. A free 30-minute initial consultation with me can provide a lot of insight and help get your case started on the right foot or back on track, whichever the case may be. You can book your appointment online here or contact me at justieforjustice@gmail.com. Let me focus on your criminal defense so you can focus on moving forward with your life.