Finding a Lawyer
Note: This article explains why and how to find a lawyer. Whether you decide to get one and how that fits into family relationships and healing is a separate but very important issue, discussed here.
If you are wondering if you need a lawyer...you probably do. If you’re not sure, there’s no legal harm in talking to a lawyer. There is no harm, and potentially great benefit, in getting legal advice sooner rather than later.
FYI: Lawyers are also called attorneys.
Why do I need a lawyer?
Criminal Justice/Defense Lawyer: The goal of hiring a lawyer doesn’t have to be to “win” a case, but to ensure you understand your rights, can exercise them, and be treated fairly. The criminal justice system is extremely complex. If you are accused of a crime, you will be dealing with officials who know the system and the law, and who know that you don’t. A lawyer explains to you what is happening and speaks on your behalf to law enforcement, prosecution, judges, and other court staff. It is like having a translator with you in a country where you have important business but cannot speak the language.
Family Lawyer: If there are any issues related to stepfamilies, divorce, custody, or dealing with social services, you may need an attorney that specializes in family law. This doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to war with the rest of the family. It just means you have someone with expertise in this very complex legal system to guide you and represent your best interests as you navigate the unknown.
Private Lawyer vs. Public Defender
If you are charged with a crime, and have a moderate to low income, you will be offered the services of a public defender. The public defender will be your defense lawyer at no cost to you. If a young person still financially dependent on parents is charged, the courts look only at the defendant’s income. So most young adults qualify for a public defender.
The court will assign a lawyer to be your public defender. You don’t get to choose which one. But if the relationship is not working, you can request to be reassigned.
Public defenders usually match private lawyers in skill and expertise. They work closely with local prosecutors every day. But they almost always have a higher caseload than private lawyers. This means they have less time to get to know you and work on your behalf. You may have to wait longer to get calls returned or to meet with your attorney.
You cannot be assigned a public defender until after you are charged. And in a world of public online court records, being charged with a sex offense can affect your life, even if the charges are later dropped or you are found not guilty. If you have not yet been charged, you can hire a private lawyer to represent you until the day you are charged and then switch to a public defender if you wish.
Important note: Public defenders are only available for criminal defense. If you need a lawyer to deal with family law, administrative law, civil court, including dealing with CPS you will need to hire your own lawyer.
What if I can’t afford a lawyer?
Check on what services Legal Aid offers in your area:
Legal Services Corporation (USA): Free Legal Aid Finder
Interactive legal information for low and moderate incomes: Lawhelp.org
Also, many private lawyers provide an initial 30-60 minute consultation for free or reduced cost. This may be enough to provide valuable information and send you in the right direction.
You can hire your own lawyer at any point. Start by searching for the type of lawyer you need and the state where you live–or where the offense happened, for a criminal case. Some things to check/look for:
Experience in the area you need: the juvenile justice system, experience with clients facing sex offender registration, dealing with child protection services, custody issues where abuse is involved, etc.
Look at their website for a list of their areas of expertise and their years and type of experience
Google the attorney’s name to see press reports of past cases they have taken. Be aware that the press reports only part of the story. Look at how they represent their clients to the public as well as how they treat victims in the press.
The next step is to contact the lawyer’s office and describe your situation. Most attorneys will offer you an initial meeting at either low or no cost where you can decide whether or not to hire them. This meeting will not trigger a mandatory report. Things to ask at this meeting might include:
What is their experience and approach to sex offenses that happen within a family context
What are their fees, how do payments work, do they offer payment plans, and what might be a starting range of what your case may cost
If you are a parent hiring for your child, or if your parents will be paying, how will that work and who will be making decisions and getting information about the case
Some things to consider before signing a contract with an attorney:
Did they answer your questions in a way you could understand? Were they willing to keep explaining if you didn’t understand right away? You will be getting a lot of complex information from your attorney, and it is important that you clearly understand it before making decisions.
Did they treat you with respect? Your attorney doesn’t need to have a pleasant personality, but you do deserve to be treated with respect.
Were you able to contact them or their office in a reasonable amount of time?
You may want to ask if they will add language to the contract specifying that they will treat the other sibling with respect or within specific boundaries.
Most law firms will ask for a “retainer”--a pre-payment that will cover the cost of initial work on your case. You may have to pay more if the case lasts longer. If the case ends sooner than expected, you should get a refund of unbilled funds.
Ask to have the contract include a monthly itemized statement of your account. It should show what work the attorney has done, how much it cost, and what balance you have left or that you will owe.