So you’ve been charged with a crime. You already know that you need to hire a good attorney, but you’re not really sure how to decide just what a ‘good’ attorney is. You’ve gotten the letters, you’ve run through the websites, and every one of the attorneys are claiming that they are the end-all be-all solution. So how do you choose? How do you decide which attorney will actually get you results? Do you hire the lawyer with the fancy website, or do you go with the attorney who gives you the cheapest deal? The answer really isn’t as complicated as you might think, and one of the best things to look at is the attorney’s experience.
The fact of the matter is that when you hire a private attorney, you’re hiring a reputation. Not just a reputation with their clients, but more importantly, a reputation with the courts. There really isn’t a way to eliminate the human-factor when you’re dealing with courts: judges and prosecutors are people, and if you hire someone the judge or prosecutor is familiar with, you’re more likely to get a better deal. That’s the way the world works. But how do you figure out if an attorney has a good rep with the judge and the prosecutor?
What it comes down to is their time in court. The more often an attorney has appeared before a judge or resolved a case with a prosecutor, the more likely they are to have a working relationship. And the more likely they are to have worked with each other in the past, the more likely they are to have developed a respect for each other. So the attorney with the most time in court has the most experience, and is most likely to get you the best deal. And despite what up-and-coming attorneys might tell you, there really is an easy way to estimate the experience of an attorney.
It’s called the Utah State Bar. It’s the organization which monitors each and every licensed attorney in Utah, and it does so with bureaucratic efficiency. In 2010, as part of a spring convention for licensed attorneys, the bar released a complete list of all practicing attorneys in Utah who had made appearances in district courts (click here). This list included the total number of appearances, the total number of those appearances which were in trial settings, the total number of non-trial appearances, and the total number of individual judges the attorney has appeared in front of.
So now you’ve got everything you need to know to find an experienced attorney, right? Well, not quite. Isolating the most experienced attorneys in the list is not as easy as just finding the attorney with the highest number of appearances.
Step 1: Total Number of Appearances
You have to start by filtering out the public defenders from the private attorneys – since public defenders have to appear in court just about every day, they tend to have a high number of appearances (see this article for more information on public defenders). So the first thing you need to do is filter out the really high numbers, probably anything higher than 700, or about 500 above the average total, listed at the top. This should rule out most of the public defenders, and give you a better idea of what to look for.
Step 2: Total Number of Judges
The next thing you want to look at is the number of judges the attorney has appeared in front of – this is another trick to filter out any remaining public defenders. If the attorney has appeared in court 1,000 times, but only in front of two different judges, they’re most likely a public defender. Unlike private attorneys, public defenders typically appear in the same court over and over, so they don’t get around to other judges as much. If the attorney has appeared in front of a lot of judges, though, then they’re probably a private attorney.
Step 3: The Attorney Bar Number
Next, you want to take a look at the attorney’s bar number – this is listed on the left of their name. Something most people don’t know about that number is that attorneys are given them in the order they get their licenses, so the lower the number, the longer the attorney has had their license. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re an experienced attorney – a lawyer might get their license and quit practicing a few years later – but it gives you an idea of whether or not you’re dealing with someone who has had a law degree for more than just a few years.
Step 4: Total Number of Trials
Now that you’ve filtered out the public defenders and gotten an idea of how long the attorneys have had their licenses, take a look at the number of trial appearances. As most people who’ve been to court can tell you, the majority of cases get resolved long before trial, so these numbers are unsurprisingly low. But keep in mind the 17 average for trial appearances – an attorney with over 100 trial appearances is clearly a fighter, and must’ve had a lot of cases to build up that number of trial appearances.
So you’ve finally got a good way to gauge whether or not an attorney has experience. If they have a high total number of appearances (but not too high), have appeared in front of a lot of judges, have a low bar number, and have a high trial number, then you’re probably looking at a really experienced lawyer. And the fact that the list is three years old doesn’t really hurt – the numbers could only have gone up, and if the attorney isn’t on the list, then you know they’ve been practicing for at most three years. Now go out there and hire an attorney that will get you a deal worth your money!
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