The question “who is the best criminal lawyer?” is one that anybody accused of a crime would want to know the answer to. Unfortunately, there’s no easy and simple answer to the question. It’s a bit like asking “who’s the best hairstylist in town?”. There’s definitely bad hairstylists and good ones, but there’s too many factors involved for it to be possible to really say who the “best” one is.
Why can’t you say who the best criminal lawyer is?
First, it’s important to understand that lawyers specialize. Some lawyers, like myself, almost exclusively practice criminal law. Other lawyers never touch criminal law. That doesn’t mean a non-criminal lawyer might not do a good job if they dabble in a single criminal case, but they could easily miss something important because of their lack of familiarity on the front lines. They might not know what the judges are like in the local criminal courts, nor what the prosecutors are like. They might miss some viable non-legal strategies because they’re only thinking about by-the-book legal strategies.
Second, even among criminal lawyers, we specialize. That means the best lawyer for a lengthy murder trial might not be the best lawyer for someone facing their first-ever criminal charge for assault. Lengthy murder trials usually involve developing arguments on numerous nuanced legal issues relating to the law of evidence. A great legal mind might not have the best skill at run-of-the-mill advocacy. Or, more commonly, a lawyer who does many lengthy murder trials might not be very interested in devoting much attention to their smaller cases. It’s not that they might lack the skill, it’s that they might lack the care.
Third, the lawyer-client relationship isn’t a one-size-fits-all relationship. Some lawyers may be great, but their personalities might conflict with their client. That might mean their client ends up moving on to someone else, even though the lawyer they were with was excellent. To the client, that wasn’t true. Although other lawyers might say, “the client shouldn’t have dismissed that lawyer”, the client’s decision is a personal one that you couldn’t definitively say is “wrong”. Maybe it was right for them.
Do the best lawyers get the best results?
It’s important to remember that results aren’t always a measure of a lawyer’s skill. The true measure is the outcome of the lawyer’s cases in relation to the facts of those cases. If the prosecutor has an overwhelming case, the best lawyer in the world won’t be able to beat it. On the other hand, the prosecutor might have an extremely strong case but make some crucial mistake at trial, which causes the judge to acquit the accused. When that happens, it wasn’t the defence lawyer’s skill that won the case, it was really just luck. Knowing the facts of a case isn’t easy, because it doesn’t get shared with the public. Most of the details of a case are only known by the defence, the Crown prosecutor, and the judge if the case goes to trial. Therefore, it’s difficult to assess how good a lawyer really is, unless you’re a lawyer yourself and you’ve seen them work their cases day-to-day.
A lawyer told me that 99% of their clients avoid a criminal record. Does that mean they’re good?
Maybe, maybe not. That’s just not a good metric to decide whether a lawyer is good, because they might not take on certain cases unless they’re sure they’ll be able to get an outcome for their client where the client doesn’t get a criminal record. If a lawyer only has clients charged with small-scale shoplifting thefts who have had no prior contact with police their whole lives, then all their clients will avoid a criminal record. They can say “100% of my clients avoid a criminal record”, but it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment.
Many excellent lawyers will choose to take cases that they know are losers. Our legal system is based on the principle that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to be defended by a lawyer who acts in the accused’s best interest at every step of the way. Many great lawyers choose to take very difficult cases to ensure people accused of even the most serious crimes receive the defence they’re entitled to. They want to do their part to make sure the justice system works the way it’s supposed to.
If a lawyer is experienced, does that mean they’re good?
Again, to get back to the hairstylist analogy, would you think that the best hairstylists are the ones with the most experience? Maybe, maybe not. For lawyers, the answer is also “maybe”. It depends. A young lawyer might be very eager to prove their worth to other lawyers, and might overwork a case as a result. An older lawyer might have become indifferent, and be riding the coattails of their reputation rather than putting in the work they need to get the best results for their clients. An older lawyer might even have a questionable reputation that they’ve built up for years, if they were never very good. A young lawyer might find every detail of every new case interesting, while an older lawyer might be bored and disinterested in most of their cases.
More experienced lawyers are less likely to work smaller cases themselves. When they take on a new client, they might not tell the client that they’ll be passing on their case to the junior lawyer. The client might pay a premium for the older lawyer’s experience, but receive the skills of the junior one. They might also find that they’re never able to get in touch with the experienced lawyer, who simply doesn’t answer their calls because they’re always too busy.
So if experience is no guarantee of skill, and results are no guarantee of skill, then how can I figure out which lawyer I should hire?
Since the lawyer-client relationship is very important, you should get a consultation and decide how you feel about the lawyer. Ask yourself a few questions: did the lawyer explain the legal process clearly? Did they explain their basic defence strategy clearly? Do they have a plan for my defence? Do I have confidence this lawyer will work hard to get me the best result they can?
You should also ask yourself whether the lawyer will truly be the one representing you, or if it’ll be a junior lawyer who does the work. If a junior lawyer does the work, that isn’t inherently bad, but the lawyer should be up front about this with you.
Beware of lawyers who oversell the result they can get you. There are no guarantees in criminal defence, even for lawyers who consistently get good results (like myself). Builders are notorious for doing this. They say they’ll do X, Y, Z to win your business, but when the work begins they don’t follow-through.
To be clear, a lawyer might still be able to get the outcome they’ve promised you, but the fact they’re making the promise at all should be a concern. The BC Law Society Code of Conduct discourages guaranteeing results in this way, so if a lawyer is doing this they’re actually going against the rules of ethics for BC lawyers.
It’s important to consider how busy a lawyer’s practice is. The number one complaint of dissatisfied clients is that their lawyer never returns their phone calls. Others will complain that their lawyer didn’t explain the legal process, didn’t keep them updated, and didn’t even seem to do anything at all as weeks and months passed. Most likely, this happens because the lawyer has too many clients at once to be responsive to each of them.
Is there anything else I should consider before I choose to hire a lawyer?
Obviously, the price of legal representation is a common concern for people who need to hire a lawyer. As a general rule, the more experienced a lawyer, the more they’ll charge for their services. If you’re charged with a simple, low-level offence, it might not make sense financially to hire the most experienced lawyer in town. As we’ve seen, that experience is no guarantee of great service or a good outcome anyway.