How to Choose a Civilian Military Lawyer and Avoid Making a Very Expensive Mistake
There are some excellent civilian military attorneys, but to find the one that’s right for you you’ll need to ask the right questions.
The first thing should do is make sure your attorney actually spent time defending criminal cases while on active duty in the military. It’s essential to have a military background in order to comprehend how to handle a case like yours. It’s also critically important that you civilian military lawyer does court-martial trials frequently, if not exclusively, and handles cases in all of the branches of service.
You want to make sure you’re not dealing with a referral law firm that claims to do military cases but has no background in military law. A firm like this will charge an exorbitantly high price, find a local attorney they can hand the case off to for a small fee, and pocket the rest of your money. Find out how much of the firm’s overall practice is dedicated to court-martial defense, and find out who, exactly, is going to be handling your case.
Occasionally, legitimate civilian military defense firms will affiliate with one another to save on advertising costs and streamline the process of referring cases to each other. There is nothing wrong with this practice, but if the size of a firm is an important consideration for you, be aware that some firms appear to be staffed with more attorneys than they actually have.
The Three Most Important Rules
The most important legal advice we give friends, family, and criminal defense clients can be summarized in three points:
- Accept that you can’t talk yourself out of trouble.
- Never talk to anyone about your case, except for your attorney, even if you’re innocent.
- Always demand to speak to an attorney, and refuse to consent to any searches of your property or personal belongings.
It’s natural to be concerned that if you ask for a lawyer and refuse to make a statement to an investigator, people will think you have something hide.
But if you’re under investigation, that means the government – the police, the prosecutors, and most likely your commander – already thinks you’re guilty. If you’re being interrogated, that means the police already suspect you of committing a crime.
At that point, the police are not your friends, they don’t want to help you, and they don’t believe you. They are trained in the psychology of interrogations and they’re allowed to lie. They use their training and your fear to get you to say whatever they need you to say. They use tricks and threats to get you to consent to their search of your home and personal belongings. Once they have some kind of statement that they can call a confession, some of your words that they can twist to make you look guilty, they can wrap up the case. Even if you’re innocent, you need to follow these three rules. Remember: You can’t talk yourself out of trouble, even if you’re telling the truth. Don’t talk to the police, since they’re not interested in helping you.
Demand a lawyer, because unless you make a clear demand for an attorney the police don’t have to stop interrogating you. Don’t be fooled by threats, tricks, or promises. The police are allowed to lie to you, and they will. They will say they have eyewitnesses when it’s not true. They will tell you this is your last chance to clear your name, when it isn’t. They will promise you that if you talk, things will go easier for you. They can lie about having a warrant or being able to get a warrant. The truth is that when you talk, when you give consent, you make their lives easier and set yourself up to be convicted.
Why You Should Consider Hiring a Civilian Military Lawyer
When you’re in trouble with the military, you need an attorney more than at any other time in your life, and you need one who has the courage and skill to fight your case. Just about any lawyer can get you through a guilty plea, but even if you’re guilty and want to take responsibility for what you have done, you need to have someone on your side who doesn’t start with the goal of pleading out your case. Unfortunately, many criminal attorneys plead out almost all of their cases, and they often go into a case looking first and foremost for a deal. This occurs both inside and outside of the military. It’s not unusual for a criminal defense attorney to recommend taking the prosecutor’s first offer. It has been our experience that the government will almost never open negotiations with a good offer. In order to get the best deal, you have to be willing to fight, even if it means taking some risks. You need an attorney who knows how to negotiate firmly, and who’s ready to take your case to trial if necessary. Also, you need an attorney who can tell whether the government is taking advantage of you by piling on additional, improper charges, just to scare you into taking a very bad deal.
If you want to fight for the best possible outcome, your attorney needs to have the experience, maturity, and insight necessary for a long and difficult battle. Your attorney needs to be so comfortable in court that he feels as though he’s at home in every courtroom he walks into, but he also needs to be modest enough to understand that your case isn’t all about him. Your civilian military attorney should strive to be a class act and maintain a good military appearance. If comes across poorly, it will reflect poorly on you.
It’s not enough that he is willing to present your case to a jury if he has to – you should hire an attorney who looks forward to taking your case to a jury of your peers, because in a military trial that’s often then only real chance at justice you’ll get. Whether the case is going to be fully contested or a guilty plea, a key question should be whether the attorney thinks the case should be handled by a judge alone or by a jury. Your attorney has to be willing to embrace whichever option gives you the best chance at winning.
The bottom line is that whether you plan to accept responsibility or fight the case, in order to give yourself the best possible defense you need a lawyer who is willing to stand up to the government and stand proudly at your side.
What Qualities You Should Look for in a Civilian Military Attorney
As you look for an attorney for your court-martial, it should go without saying that your attorney should have done a lot of court-martial defense when he was on active duty, and he should be a full-time civilian military attorney now. In addition to military experience, focus on these qualities:
- An attorney who has a lot of experience doing criminal jury trials.
- An attorney who understands interrogation and investigation methods.
- An attorney who isn’t afraid to be candid with you.
Military criminal defense is a highly specialized area of the law. A court-martial is not a place for the family’s favorite lawyer or a local attorney who runs a general practice. It’s not the place for the “military lawyer” who merely spent time in the military but spent most of his time behind a desk avoiding the courtroom. It’s also not a place for an attorney who specializes in civil litigation. Criminal trial attorneys see a lot of action in court, but most civil trial attorneys don’t. Instead, attorneys who specialize in civil litigation do a lot of depositions and writing. These skills are important but they are no substitute for the daily experience of life in criminal courtrooms, and they don’t expose an attorney to the unfair tactics of government agents. Some civilian military attorneys set up their law offices after retiring from active duty.
You also need to make sure your attorney doesn’t make promises just to get your business. If he guarantees victory, find someone else. The most an attorney can guarantee you is to give his best effort. There are a number of civilian military attorneys who claim to be undefeated. They’re trying to mislead you. In criminal law, the concept of victory can be fluid and very dependent on context. The best criminal trial attorneys will have an exceptional record of getting acquittals and other great outcomes, but we don’t know of any experienced criminal defense attorney who can truthfully claim to have never lost a case. Your attorney should be willing to explain the possible ways a case can be seen as a win or a loss, and how those considerations might factor into your case.
Criminal trial attorneys deal with ugly cases and they are used to dealing with uncomfortable facts. In the military, allegations of misconduct can carry a significantly more severe stigma than in civilian society. An ethical civilian court-martial attorney should have no problem dealing squarely with you and giving you an honest assessment of your case. He should also be eager to stand by your side, no matter what allegations are made against you.
The Kind of Court Martial Trial Lawyer You Need
You want experience, skill, and integrity – and, understandably, you want it all at a bargain price. Unfortunately, that’s not realistic. When you’re hiring an attorney you need to make some difficult choices.
- Integrity – hire the attorney you trust.
- Experience and Skill – look for quality, not just quantity.
- Cost – cheap is usually more expensive in the long run.
Integrity is the most important quality to look for. You need an attorney who will listen to you, tell you the truth, and insist that you tell him the truth in return. You don’t need an attorney who will say whatever he has to in order to get your business, or to make you feel better about your situation or yourself. If your attorney is weak with you, you can expect him to be weak when he’s dealing with the government. Based on your review of the attorney’s website, and based on your discussions with him, you’ll get a feel for whether you trust him. If you trust your attorney, that’s the best reason to hire him.
Experience and skill are essential, but you need to consider what kind of experience you’re looking for. By asking the right questions, you will be able to determine whether your attorney has the kind of experience you want.
Years In Practice: An attorney with relatively little trial experience may have other qualities you want, such as intelligence, integrity, and courage. On the other hand, an attorney with decades of experience may seem tired, absent-minded, or so busy that he’s distracted from your case. Years of practice are not enough to determine whether a particular attorney is right for your case. Find out what kind of cases he has done and whether he has much jury trial experience, and get a feel for the kind of energy and enthusiasm he’s going to put into your case. Some attorneys set up a civilian military law office after retiring from active duty. 20 years on active duty are not the same as spending years defending cases in court. Criminal defense is a specialized area of the law, even in the military. Make sure your civilian military attorney has been committed to court-martial defense for (at least) the most recent few years.
Former Prosecutors: Most military defense attorneys began their careers as prosecutors, and this can be either a good thing or a bad thing. Some are very good at discovering police misconduct because they have a great understanding of how the cops work. They may also be good at figuring out the weaknesses in the defense’s case, which will help you prepare better for trial. But other prosecutors got very poor training, spent their prosecutorial careers doing guilty pleas, and have no real idea of how to keep someone out of prison. Some of them are also inclined to side with the government because it’s in their nature, or because they don’t want to look bad to people who have control over their future assignments, and this kind of prosecutor won’t drive a hard bargain and won’t be skeptical about government misconduct.
Location: This should be your lowest priority. A legitimate civilian military attorney will be admitted to practice in all military courts. He will have spent his entire career traveling far and wide to represent military members. The truth is that even appointed attorneys often represent members who are outside their geographic location. Because almost all of the pretrial process is handled by phone, fax, and email, geography isn’t an issue unless the case actually goes to court. At that point, your attorney can travel to the installation. This is how we have been able to successfully represent military members all across the United States and overseas. It’s better to hire someone out of state who can do an excellent job than to hire a local attorney who doesn’t have an outstanding track record doing your kind of case.
Money is always a big concern, even for the wealthy. However, when it comes to criminal defense, when you go cheap as your first priority you can get cheap services. It has been said that cheap is more expensive in the long run, and that’s often true when it comes to defending a criminal case. If a murder case typically costs $50,000 or more to defend, you should be concerned if an attorney says he can do the case for $5,000. On the other hand, it’s not necessarily true that by spending top dollar you’ll get the best service. Some of the most expensive criminal defense attorneys are the ones who have been around the longest – the ones who may seem absent-minded, too busy for your case, or too tired to handle a big fight. For some of them, they will be happy to land a few cases a year at inflated prices, rather than a steady supply of cases at reasonable prices.
It’s easy to get confused about the financial commitment you need to make when hiring a civilian attorney. If you call around, you can get estimates ranging from $10,000 to $65,000 for the exactly the same case. Most of the established military trial lawyer firms charge approximately the same amount for representation. You need to take time to read through the attorney’s website and have a telephone consultation to get a feel for the attorney’s personality, level of skill, and degree of experience, and then factor in the financial considerations. Price is always a factor, but it shouldn’t be the reason you select one attorney over another.
When estimating the total cost of hiring a civilian military attorney, one thing to watch for is whether a law firm has any “escalation” clauses in its fee estimate. Some firms quote you a price that only includes a certain numbers of days, and a certain number of work hours in a day. If your case goes beyond those minimum days and hours, the escalation clauses will kick in and may result in you paying much higher fees than you expected. A court-martial will often require far more than a standard 8-hour day. Our firm does not use escalation clauses. Our firm uses all-inclusive flat fees for our legal services.
When you're looking for a civilian military attorney,
we recommend that you ask the following questions:
-Have your attorneys all served as JAGs in the military? If not, will any of the attorneys who do not have military experience be handling my case?
-Have all of the attorneys who will be handling my case actually litigated a contested Court-Martial before a military panel, or "jury"?
-Will my file be referred to another firm or attorney who does not have military JAG experience?
-Will I be represented by the military attorney or attorneys that were the "featured" attorney(s) on your website?
Call us toll-free at 1-877-867-5247 and speak to a military lawyer, or e-mail us by clicking here.