Do you need to hire a criminal defense attorney?

Unfortunately, at some point in your life, you may actually have to hire a criminal defense attorney. I’m not a lawyer, though as a former federal prisoner/defendant, I hired lawyers. I made a lot of mistakes.

I had no idea how to vet a criminal defense attorney, didn’t know the appropriate questions to ask, and as a result, I spent more money than I should have, and it also led to a longer federal prison sentence. So, whether it’s criminal, civil, bankruptcy, divorce, whatever it is, if you’re going to hire a lawyer at some point in your life, you need to ask the right questions and that’s when I’m going to get into in this video today, to help you to ask the right questions that you just don’t know how to ask, so let’s jump right in.

#1: Is this more than just a job for you?

Well, what does that mean? I can recall… I’ll share story with you. The first funeral I attended was I was 11 years old, my grandfather’s funeral, and I remember at the end of the funeral, the people who worked in the funeral home were very nice, but I saw them in this side room. They were kind of laughing, and chuckling, and just going on with their day, and talking about what they were going to do that evening. It sort of reminded me, or it hit me, like this is just a job for them. We’re devastated. This is the biggest day of our life, or for me, it was. My grandfather, whom I loved, had passed away, and the people who work here are just gonna go on with their day, go home and watch Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, and have dinner. It’s just what they’re supposed to do. It’s just a job for them.

Justin:              So, I want you to ask your lawyer, “Is this as just a job for you?” I don’t need them to have tons of empathy and sympathy, but you want them to care. You want them to be passionate. As a criminal defendant, I was freaked out. I was scared to death. I didn’t know what to do. If you’re going through a divorce or a civil issue, you’re suing or being sued, it’s a very big deal. You want to know that they care, and they’re not so desensitized to the issue that it just feels like work for them. So ask them, “Is it just a job, or why did you get into the space?”

#2 Question to Ask a Criminal Defense Attorney: Can I speak to your last three clients?

Doesn’t that seem logical? At our company, if someone is thinking of retaining us, I’ll ask the prospect, “Would you like to speak with several recent clients?” Do your own vetting. It’s in my interest to say, “Well, I think we’re awesome and great.” Get that objective feedback from others who have already retained us. Do the same thing with a lawyer, okay? It’s very easy to go into a meeting with a lawyer. You could have a high pain point. You’re looking to hear something. You could be vulnerable. You’re looking for the buzzwords that are gonna make you feel better. In the criminal defense space, it could include, “Justin, if you give me X, I can keep you out of jail.” Let me tell you what I did when I heard that. I broke out the checkbook, people. A lawyer said to me, “Justin, I think we can beat this case.” “Oh, Really? You think we can beat it? How much? Hold on, let me just write you a check. That sounds like a good idea.”

When that didn’t work out, then I’d go to another criminal defense attorney who said, “Well, I probably could have done this differently. If you do this, I think we can keep you out of jail.” “You can keep me out of prison? How much?” I’m not saying all lawyers are like that. Most lawyers are fantastic and great, but I didn’t know how to vet a lawyer. They might’ve been telling me what they thought was the truth. I know they told me in some cases what I wanted to hear. Happy to write the check and scratch the check. Be different from me. That’s why I’m filming this video. Speak to their clients. It is integral.

#3: Do they charge an hourly or inclusive fee?

I can tell you that I always prefer an inclusive rate, if possible. An inclusive rate is you go in, you hire a lawyer, and you know exactly what it’s going to cost when you write a check.

As a criminal defendant, for example, I have clients that may give 25, 50, $100,000 to a criminal defense attorney, but it covers everything, the balance of their case from start to finish. A number of civil lawyers will do absolutely the same thing. It’s nice to fix and lock the fee. It’s nice to know what it’s going to cost. The downside at times to an inclusive fee is you may not feel as if they’re doing all of the work, because they’ve already been paid. You can try to push for payment plans over a period of months. Hourly could compel a lawyer to spend more time on the case. Maybe it requires the attention, but also there’s an hourly wage attached to it.

I don’t really drink, but I remember when I was a federal defendant, and I had an hourly agreement with a lawyer, sometimes when the bills would come… I should have props here for this video, people. I should have props. Before I can even open up the bill, I would have to drink like half of a bottle of wine, because I’d think, “Oh, good god. How big is this bill going to be?” It’s like, “This is going to be absolutely massive.” So before you hire a lawyer, find out if there’s an inclusive rate from start to finish, what will that be, and can you do payment plans? Or if it’s an hourly rate, what is that rate, and are there junior associates, paralegals in the firm that can do much of the work at lower rate? Get clarity on that. I’d hate to have you hire someone, you get the first bill that says $22,000, and you’re like, “Good God. Every time I speak with my lawyer, it’s a $1,500 call, because two of them are on there at 750 an hour.” Inclusive or hourly, it’s a really big deal.

#4 Question to Ask a Criminal Defense Attorney: How well do you write?

If I were you, I would find out how well your lawyers write. How persuasive are they? You would expect a lawyer to tell you that they’re good writers, and they’re successful in mitigating or settling whatever it may be, and to do that, they’re probably good writers. Well, find out. Ask them to share some of their recent motions or filings with you. In a criminal case for example, if the government is asking that a defendant get 51 months in prison and the defense is asking for 33 months, where did the judge settle? Did the judge settle on a lower number in part because of how persuasive the defense attorney was? Again, this isn’t just for defendants, it’s for any potential person that’s going to hire a lawyer. Find out how well they write, how persuasive they are, and how successful they’ve been in some of the work that they’ve produced.

Seems pretty logical, but it’s questions that people don’t know how to ask, because you may have never hired a lawyer, and you’re going on what you’ve read on a review that may be written by someone in their office. It could be an anonymous review. It could be a made up first and last name if not verified, and they’re very easily selling the pain points, exactly what you want to hear, the buzzwords, in order to get retained. Don’t be exploited. Don’t be vulnerable. Do your homework. Do your due diligence. It’s why I’m filming this video, so you don’t have to go down this hole that I went down. I spent a ton of money, and I’m too tired of getting calls from people that have regretted how poorly they work with their lawyer, and it’s like they didn’t know what the hell to ask them, him or her, when they hired him.

Question #5: “Who else will I be working with within the firm?

There are some good lawyers out there. The question is, are they going to be doing the work in your case? Are they the marketer? Are they the front guy? Are they the one closing the business? What happens after you’ve been brought in? Are you going to be outsourced to someone else in the firm? It happens a lot. I’ve seen it in civil, bankruptcy, divorce, et cetera. Unfortunately, in my career as a federal prison consultant, some of my clients go through a divorce, or bankruptcy, or civil issues with the FTC or SEC. I’ve seen everything, and I’ve worked with hundreds of lawyers, and every now and again a defendant will say, “Well, I hired this lawyer and I saw him here and there, and he’s big time, but I never worked with him. He never responds to me. I’m outsourced to somebody else.”

Make sure you know exactly with whom you’re going to be working. Get it in writing. Look at their credentials. Then, hearkening back to the second question, can you speak to some of their clients? Speak to some of the people that they have worked with. You’ve got to vet. You’re scratching a big check for lawyers, potentially over a sustained period of time. Recently, I settled some defamation cases of a competitor’s who… I don’t even call them competitors, but people who wrote anonymous reports about me. Two years, I was in litigation. I worked with a number of people within this law firm, but before retaining them I knew exactly what role, what their rate would be, and when I would communicate with the lead partner at the appropriate time. It was very clear. My expectations were managed.

#6: Any issues with the state bar?

A pretty obvious question, could probably have been number one, have they had any issues with the state bar? Of course, it’s very easy to go to the state bar website, type in their name, find out if they’ve had any civil issues. Now, I’m not saying someone should be automatically crossed out if they’ve had, but give them a chance to explain it, to articulate what may have happened, but you need to know if they’ve had any sanctions or complaints against them, trust fund issues, rebukes from judges, and things like that. That seems like a pretty basic question.

#7 Question to Ask a Criminal Defense Attorney: How often will I hear from you?

I would find out if they send a weekly, biweekly, or monthly status reports. Let me tell you why that’s relevant. It’s frustrating to hire a law firm, and then you get a bill a month later that says $9,000, and maybe you haven’t spoken to him that that whole month, and you’re like, “Why did I just get a bill for nine grand? I spoke to them one time, two times, not at all. I got a few emails,” and you’re like, “Why did I just get a bill for nine grand? This is absolutely absurd.” A status report, which is something I’m a proponent of, tells you what they’ve done every week. Maybe they’re doing research. Maybe they’re writing motions. Maybe they’re finding expert witnesses or testimony.

Whatever it may be, I suggest getting a weekly status report, because when you get a bill at the end of the month, you don’t feel like it’s made up or you don’t know what the hell they did. So I actually demanded that even if I had to pay for it. I demanded that of affirm that I retained, said, “Every Friday, send me a note. Let me know what you’ve done this week.” Some weeks, there was nothing there, which in a way was great, because I’m like, “all right, I’m not going to get built this week. Nothing happened.” Find out how often they’re going to send you some status reports.

#8: Have you had any issues with past clients you can tell me about?

Okay, no one is perfect. We all make mistakes in life, and that could include a lawyer that you’ve retained, and I think it would be a good question to find out some bad experiences they’ve had with a client. If they claim to be perfect, and every relationship with a client has gone successfully, then you should run out of that law office. That’s illogical. This is life. There can be problems. Find out. Ask them, “Walk me through a bad scenario you’ve had with a client. What would you have done differently? What steps have you put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again?” Knowing that no one is perfect, ask them to speak openly and honestly about some bad choices or experiences with clients, so you can benefit from that.

#9: Do you take payment plans?

At our company, we do payment plans over a period of time. Why? Well, we’re not doing all of the work at once, so why should we get paid at once? That would seem like illogical, and I’m talking about longer scopes of work, that could stretch out weeks, months, and years. We’re not doing all the work today. Why pays at once? Well, same thing with lawyers. If you hire bankruptcy, civil, criminal, whatever type of lawyer it may be, and they say it’s 50,000, 100,000, 200,000, you don’t need to scratch them a check at once. They haven’t done any of the work. So I encourage you to ask for a payment plan, have it within that scope of work or retainer agreement, make sure it’s clearly defined.

#10 Question to Ask a Criminal Defense Attorney: Do I need to maintain a minimum balance?

You’ll want to find out if your retainer all always has to be kept at a certain level. I’ll share a story with you. I had a client who hired a criminal defense attorney. He had already hired me after he hired the lawyer, and the lawyer’s fee was $100,000 up front, and the client paid him $100,000 up front, against an hourly rate of like $750 an hour. I would have done things differently. Client didn’t really ask any of these questions. Again, he hired the lawyer before speaking with me. One thing my client didn’t read in the retainer agreement, in part because he was so happy with the potential idea this lawyer was going to keep him out of prison, was that the retainer account always have… The trust account always had to have $100,000 balance. So, the first month, he gives him $100,000, goes through 60,000 in legal fees. It’s down to 40. My client initially thought, “Great, I don’t have to send any money in this month. I gave them 100.”

No, my client got a bill that said, “Per the retainer agreement, you need to send in $60,000, because there always must be $100,000.” Lawyers do that to ensure they’re going to get paid at the conclusion of a case. So it’s important that you’d… And I don’t have a problem with it. I think it’s fine. They do the work. They should get paid, but you need to know that going in. Does there always have to be a certain level? It’s a key question you have to ask any lawyer that you may hire.

#11: Do you have real reviews I can review?

Do the criminal defense attorney have authentic reviews on line? Do they have a first and last name? I can tell you, over the years, 30 lawyers or so have reached out to me and said, “Justin, would you go to…” Avvo, it’s called, Avvo or Martindale, one of these lawyer review sites, “Would you go there and leave a review?” And I’m like, “Well, I’m not a client of yours. I can leave a review I think you’re a good client, a good lawyer, and I worked alongside you, but I wasn’t a client. That would be disingenuous. That would be like fraudulent. Like, ethically, I can’t do that. You weren’t my lawyer.”

They’re like, “Well, it happens all the time.” And it got me thinking, “Dude, how many of these reviews are from just his friends and family?” Make sure the reviews are authentic. Make sure there’s a first and last name. In our company, for example, we have a Facebook page. I only post reviews that have a first and last name. You can message them directly from our Facebook page. That’s the way that it should be, and if they don’t have a first or last name attached to it, you know, find out why.

It kind of comes back to the second question, speaking to some of their clients. Make sure that reviews are authentic and real. Some of these rating sites, where any lawyer has a five star review, Joe M., you know, Mary Q. It’s like, well who are these people? It can be their buddy. Who the hell knows? I highly encourage you to make sure the reviews are authentic and verified.

#12 Question to Ask a Criminal Defense Attorney: Do you take advice from others?

And question number 12, as we wrap up this video two days before Father’s Day, and of course I wish happy Father’s Day to all of you. Question number 12, can your lawyer be reasoned with? Are they so dogmatic, or in some cases arrogant, that they’re not willing to take the advice or opinions of others? Give you an example. In our work, we’ve spoken with federal judges. I’ve spoken with them on stage. My colleagues, Michael Santos and Shon Hopwood, have trained judges. We’ve interviewed federal judges on our YouTube channel, and Judge Boo and Judge Bennett were judges we interviewed, and in some of these videos, the judges talk about how a defendant can prepare for sentencing. They talk about the importance of a personal narrative, writing a compelling letter to a judge. Great.

Believe it or not, despite what judges tell us, hundreds of judges, over a period of years, knowing the importance of a defendant taking action through their own efforts, there are lawyers that have said, “That judge don’t know nothing.” It’s like, Huh? Really? He was appointed by a president. He sentenced more than 4,000 defendants. He’s telling us he wants to hear directly from the defendant, and that lawyers are paid to say good things about their clients, and they heavily discount what lawyers say at sentencing. Don’t you think it makes sense? “No, I’m the lawyer. This is what I do. You hired me. I went to law school. I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

Just because someone’s been doing it for 30 years doesn’t mean it’s right. For three-and-half years before I went to prison, I sat on the couch eating bonbons, and donuts, and cookies, and chewing tobacco, because I was depressed. Just cause I did it every day, really with a lot of discipline and commitment… It took a lot of discipline and commitment to eat that many bonbons, cookies, and donuts. Just because I did it everyday doesn’t mean it’s right. I hear that all the time. “I’ve done it this way for 20 years.” Okay, I have a hook and my golf swing. I’ve done it for 10, 12 years. Doesn’t mean the hook is right, because I do it every day. That’s absurd. Can they be reasoned with? Are they open to other ideas? Are they open to the advice or opinions of others, or does it always have to be their way or the highway? Or, if you present some compelling evidence that they may be wrong, are they even open to it? Are they open to the idea of it?

These 12 questions that are questions that I did not ask before I hired a lawyer. Most of you, I’ll never meet. We’ll never communicate, but I empathize with you if you have to hire a lawyer. I empathize with you if you have to scratch a check to a lawyer. I empathize with you that you may get a bill in the mail from a lawyer that may require you to want to drink a bottle of wine before you open it. I empathize that a lawyer may put pressure on you to pay, and I can go on for days about the empathies I feel for anyone that may have to hire any type of lawyer.

I filmed this video for you, so you don’t do what I did, which is hear something from a lawyer and say, “Wow, that’s awesome. I’m ready to pay you. That’s even better. I’m ready to pay you more.” Be better than me. That’s how I’m going to wrap up this video. Again, to all of you, I wish you a wonderful Father’s Day. Any of you have questions, feel free to reach out. If you’d like a free copy of my book, Lessons From Prison, go to It’s free. Don’t give me your money. Don’t buy it, but if you download it, read it. Cannot believe how many people buy a book or a product that is great and may work, but they don’t take the time to go through it, and in this book I talk a little bit about my experience with lawyers, and I covered some of the things in this subject today.