How to choose the right lawyer (Part 1)
Most people have little direct contact with the criminal justice system. If you are being investigated or charged with a crime, you should seek experienced legal counsel to guide you through our judicial system. This is the final in a five-part series where I, as an Ottawa criminal lawyer, offer advice to people about lawyers and the clients they serve.
Find legal counsel you can trust
Most lawyers offer a free consultation where you can get a feel of what they are like. As you talk to them you should get a sense of whether they are someone you will be able to confide in. You want to find someone you can develop a working relationship with and who you feel comfortable with when telling about what led to the charge. Throughout the case, they cannot effectively represent you without your input.
You have to confide in your lawyer
Let’s say you are charged with sexual assault, but you maintain you did not commit the crime. Perhaps the issue is whether the complainant provided consent before any sexual contact took place. Your lawyer will need to hear a detailed account of what happened since the issue of consent is contentious. You will need to talk about the steps you took to receive consent and why you thought it was freely granted by the other person.
Some people are going to feel awkward explaining those intimate details to their lawyer, much less to a judge if the case gets that far. That is why it is important that you are able to confide in your lawyer and not hide any relevant information. If you do, it may emerge in the prosecutor’s case and could hurt your credibility.
In cases involving sexual crimes, the gender of the lawyer may be a real factor when deciding who to take on to represent you. Some people facing charges would rather speak to a male lawyer about the incident, others will prefer a female lawyer.
The same gender dynamic may apply with choosing a lawyer to represent you in a domestic assault. Finding someone you feel comfortable with is the most significant consideration. If a potential client meets me for a consultation and they end up retaining someone else, I never take it personally. I know their decision could be based on numerous factors.
Ask about the lawyer’s experience
The number of years a lawyer has practiced is an important factor to consider. If they say they have been practising for 20 years, how does that experience relate to what they can bring to the table in your case? Have they successfully handled files such as yours in the past? Maybe you will feel more confident with a younger lawyer with less experience if you believe they are in a position to better understand your situation. Also, keep in mind that the amount a lawyer charges usually increases with their years of experience.
Hire someone local
During the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers have been able to attend court and represent clients through audio-visual platforms such as Zoom. That has allowed some to work in courtrooms across the country from their office. I have not done that. I only take cases in the Ottawa area and for good reason. Since being called to the bar in 2010, I have worked exclusively in criminal law and have developed a rapport with those who administer justice in the region, including at the Ontario Court of Justice and Superior courts in Ottawa, Perth, L’Orignal, Brockville, and Pembroke.
I know the Crown attorneys. I know the judges. I stay local because I have built a reputation here in the Ottawa area. People in the prosecutor’s office have let me know that when new Crowns arrive, they are told I am a good defence lawyer to work with, even though we are on opposing sides of a case.
That is very important. When I tell the court something like, “My client really feels that what happened is out of character for them,” I am believed. My experience in Ottawa-area courtrooms has earned me credibility, with both those on the bench and opposing counsel.
Picking a lawyer often starts with Google
Many people turn to the internet when they search for a criminal lawyer. Many attorneys offer free consultations so prospective clients can get to know them. I have had some clients that may have only consulted with one other lawyer before going with me, while others seemed to have met with 15 or more.
Word of mouth is also important. I have clients who tell me, “I heard great things about you. I want to work with you.”
I find it rewarding to help people with their legal issues, and more than two dozen notes of gratitude can be found under the testimonials tab on my website. Here is one example:
“I have never been involved with the law before and I knew nothing about the criminal system. My best friend advised me to get a lawyer. I googled defence attorneys in Ottawa and you came up. I was drawn to you instantly and reached out in that moment. I truly believe you were placed before me. There is no other person that would have done what you did, eased my mind constantly, explained each step so thoroughly and went above and beyond for me and my family. Your intelligence shone through from our first meeting. You believed in me and supported me. You are a wonderful woman and I am truly blessed.”
Stay with a lawyer you trust
If a person comes to me and says, “I already had a lawyer working on my case, but I want to meet with you and discuss my file,” I will say no. That is because I do not have the information about your file that the other lawyer has. When they were hired, they received disclosure from the Crown, detailing the evidence that may be used against you. I will not be able to see that disclosure, so I cannot give you an informed opinion on your case.
That is why it is important to find a lawyer you can trust and then build a working relationship with them.
Is it worth it for me to hire a lawyer?
Price is naturally a factor in deciding which lawyer to choose. I know there are some criminal defence lawyers who charge more than I do and others who charge less. Most fee structures are based on the lawyer’s experience and the amount of work that's going to be needed on the individual cases.
When weighing the cost of a lawyer, keep in mind the price you will pay in terms of your reputation and freedom if you are convicted. I charge block fees for each phase of the criminal process, with no extra charges for calls, meetings or going to court on your behalf.
Those facing criminal charges in the Ottawa area are invited to contact me for a free consultation. Following that, I will provide you with a flat fee for the next phase of your case. You will not be charged beyond the flat fee quoted for each phase of the case.