Top 10 Complaints About Court Appointed Attorneys and Public Defenders

Several years ago there was a call in Michigan and throughout the United States to reform the Court appointed attorney and public defender system.  Since the economic meltdown that resulted in a lower tax base for local, state, and Federal governments, that call has largely been forgotten.  Even without the current economic conditions, the priorty to help individuals accused of crimes through providing competent legal representation has never been a priority within our society and government.  Many (but not all) Court appointed attorneys and public defenders provide a very adequate defense with the limited resources that they have. Complaints – right or wrong – persist against Court appointed attorneys and public defenders in general, with the belief or assumption that a retained lawyer would do much better.  The 10 most common complaints about Court appointed attorneys and public defenders include:

1.   The attorney will not return my phone calls.
A lawyer is supposed to keep his or her client reasonably informed as to the case so that appropriate, voluntary, knowing, and understanding decisions are made during the course of the legal representation.  That duty to inform does not extend to family members and friends of the client, and sometimes these complaints are based upon the feelings of friends and family members.
At Hilf & Hilf, PLC, we always try to return our client’s phone calls at the earliest possible time if we are unavailable.  In fact, we provide our cell phone numbers to our clients so we are easily accessible.  If permission is granted by our client, we are happy to speak with friends and family members about issues concerning their case.
2.   The attorney will not visit me at his office or in jail.
For state offenses in Michigan, most counties and cities will not allow the Court appointed attorney or public defender to submit a bill for every hour spent on a case – it is usually based on the nature of the court appearance.  For some court appearances, it is mandatory for the Court appointed attorney or public defender to appear on a case without any compensation as part of the overall representation.  The rate of pay to begin with isn’t high for a Court appointed attorney or public defender.  A Court appointed attorney or public defender may choose to limit the time he or she meets with a client to only matters that the attorney deems as necessary.  For some lawyers, the reasons may include the low rate of pay that the attorney receives for the case, that lack of pay for work performed outside of the Courtroom, and/or the large volume of work the attorney handles to support himself or herself because of the pay limitations from handling only or mainly Court appointed or public defender cases.
Many Court appointed attorneys and public defenders do not even have an office to meet with their clients.  When they choose to meet with the client under these circumstances, it is usually at the Courthouse, McDonalds, or some other public location.  This, of course, does not always provide for a comfortable and confidential environment to freely and openly discuss personal information, legal strategy, and defense issues.
There are a number of counties and cities that will not compensate a Court appointed attorney or public defender for jail visits, or will limit the number of times and amount that the attorney can receive for a jail visit.  When a county, city or Court system places such limitations on payment it creates a perception that adequate legal representation only entails a couple, if any, jail visits.  Jail is not a pleasant place to visit to begin with, and a Court appointed attorney or public defender may try to avoid jail visits, especially when there is no financial incentive to do so.
At Hilf & Hilf, PLC we have a modern, comfortable office suite located at 1775 W. Big Beaver Road in Troy, Michigan to accommodate our clients.  We will meet at a mutually convenient time to fully discuss the legal issue in question to work towards the best possible resolution.  When the client is incarcerated, we will work towards their release when possible, and visit the individual in jail or prison whenever it is necessary.
3.   The attorney won’t fight on my behalf.
Similar complaints include that the attorney is not on my side or the attorney works for the system.  What contributes to this perception is that in many cases the attorney relies upon a particular Judge or Judges to appoint him or her to represent indigent Defendants.  With this system in place, there have been complaints that the attorney does not want to rock the boat or else the cases that he or she receives will dry up.  The complaints continue that if the attorney takes too many cases to trial, the attorney will not be appointed on cases in the future.
At Hilf & Hilf, PLC our loyalty always remains with our clients.  We are not concerned with the feelings, Courtroom politics, or convenience of others if it interferes with receiving the best possible results for our clients given their circumstances.
4.   The attorney will not spend time on my case.
Some individuals believe that Court appointed attorneys and public defenders don’t spend time on the file because the attorney is not paid adequately.  What adds to this perceptions is that many counties, cities, or Court systems do not even pay a Court appointed attorney or public defender to file motions on behalf of the client which ultimately may benefit the client (such as a motion to quash, a motion to suppress evidence, etc.).
At Hilf & Hilf, PLC we take our oaths as lawyers to defend cases seriously.  We do whatever is legally necessary to defend our clients.  We may not charge the lowest fee, but our fees are reasonable given who we are and what we do.
5.   The attorney is not adequately prepared.
There is a risk that a lawyer that is not adequately compensated may limit the time that he or she gives to a file to get it ready for a hearing or trial.  An unprepared attorney at a hearing or trial is a potential disaster to the client.  An unprepared lawyer may not pursue every possible defense, and may overlook important aspects about the case which may prove important to how the case is ultimately resolved.  The attorney may sound or act like he or she lacks confidence due to being unprepared, which may indirectly or wrongly translate an opinion to a Judge or Jury as to how the Defense Counsel feels about his or her client and/or the case.  A Judge or Jury is always going to feel, positively or negatively, that the Defense lawyer and Prosecution probably knows more about the case than is actually presented during the course of a trial.
On appeal, the Appellate Lawyer can try to claim ineffective assistance of counsel to reverse the outcome, but by that time the damage has already been done – especially when the consequence is jail or prison.  The imposition of a sentence is rarely stayed pending the decision of the Appellate Court, even when Defense Counsel’s representation was clearly deficient.  Decisions from the Appellate Courts usually take between 1 and 2 years from when the claim of appeal is filed until an opinion is actually given.  Given that lawyers (Courts) determined the legal standard for ineffective assistance of counsel, it is understandably a very difficult standard to prove.  In most instances the decisions made at trial by Trial Counsel are deemed trial strategy, and most errors are categorized as harmless errors that result in the decision of the lower Court being affirmed.  The Court of Appeals is in most cases a Court of Affirmation and reversals are infrequent.
The lawyers at Hilf & Hilf, PLC understand that sometimes in life there is only 1 opportunity to achieve the right result.  We work tirelessly on behalf of the persons we represent to obtain a just, fair, and favorable result.
6.   The attorney makes me wait.
Many criminal attorneys, both appointed and retained, have conflicts that arise in their schedules where they have to be in several Courts at the same time.  Unfortunately, in this type of a situation the lawyer is always going to be late somewhere.  What also contributes to this problem are the number of cases scheduled before a Judge on a particular date, the length of time the other cases take, and the time that the Judge chooses to take the bench to hear the cases.
The lawyers at Hilf & Hilf, PLC try to arrange their schedule to eliminate conflicts.  We try to arrive or check in with the Court early in order to minimize the length of any delay.
7.   The attorney tries to force me to plead guilty or no contest.
Depending upon the facts of the case, a lawyer may suggest to his or her client that a plea is in their best interest as opposed to having a trial.  The question becomes, why is my lawyer providing this advice?  Is it because the lawyer thinks the client will lose at trial?  Is it because the risk of losing at trial outweighs the potential plea bargain or sentence bargain which the client will otherwise receive?  Is it because the lawyer does not want to try the case because of the money involved, the time involved, the lawyer is afraid to try the case, or for some other improper purpose?  The decision to enter a plea of guilty or no contest, and the decision to have a trial is always the sole decision of the Defendant – no matter what the opinion of the lawyer is.
At Hilf & Hilf, PLC we will always give you a rationale for any advice that we give.  However, we will always respect your choice in how we proceed, regardless if your decision is to go to trial or to tender a guilty or no contest plea.
8.   The attorney won’t do what I want him or her to do.
Lawyers are bound by ethics, rules of professional conduct, and laws.  A lawyer cannot pursue an objective of the client if that objective violates the ethics, rules, and laws which lawyers must follow.
Lawyers are also trained in the rules of evidence and Courtroom procedure.  Sometimes the question that is not asked is more important, in terms of trial strategy, then the question that is asked.  Sometimes what the client seeks to introduce into a trial is strategically harmful to his or her case.  Sometimes what the client seeks is not relevant to the issues in the case or contained within the scope of the legal representation.  When the attorney is too limited with his time and resources to communicate with the client, and to pursue the client’s relevant, strategically compatible objectives within the scope of the legal representation it drives a wedge into the attorney-client relationship.  How can the client trust the lawyer under these circumstances?
At Hilf & Hilf, PLC we take the time to communicate with you to explain our methodology as it relates to your defense, and to discuss any concerns that you may have.  Rest assured, we will always proceed in your best interest in the approach we take on your behalf.
9.  The attorney has an attitude with me.
How an individual feels about their attorney may be legitimate or illegitimate.  It may be the product of fear, the perceived indifference of the lawyer toward their client, the unwillingness of the lawyer to do what the client wants, communication issues, a clash of personalities, or a multitude or combination of a lot of factors.  Sometimes the attorney is just seems arrogant – which isn’t necessarily bad because an attorney’s confidence level is important in conveying the case to a Judge or Jury.
When a Court appointed attorney or public defender is assigned it is truly the luck of the draw.  Sometimes the lawyer is great and provides a better service than many retained lawyers, sometimes the lawyer is good, sometimes the lawyer is adequate, sometimes the lawyer is new and learning to be a criminal defense lawyer at the client’s expense due to his or her inexperience, sometimes the lawyer is horrible and does not care about his or her client.
By hiring an experienced criminal defense lawyer, such as the lawyers at Hilf & Hilf, PLC you will have the peace of mind of knowing that, finally, you have someone on your side.  You will have a lawyer that you have confidence in, someone you can communicate with, and someone who will act in your best interest.
10.   The attorney does not believe me.
At Hilf & Hilf, PLC our job is not to judge you – it is to help you.  We enter the attorney client relationship with the same trust you placed in us to hire us in the first place.