As a little background, I spent the first 6 years of my legal career as an Assistant District Attorney (Prosecutor) in Dallas and Tarrant County. In 2014, I left the DA’s office to start my own law firm in Fort Worth, Texas, representing clients in all types of trial litigation (criminal, personal injury, and business litigation). One of the first things I did after starting my practice was to get “on the wheel” and start representing low-income clients charged with crimes. Because of my experience as a trial lawyer and prosecutor, the District Court judges in Tarrant County allowed me to take court appointments for criminal cases up-to-and-including first degree felonies and non-death capital murder cases. I have had the privilege in representing some great individuals since I start taking court appointed cases, some who were wrongfully charged and ultimately exonerated through DNA evidence. But it can also be a challenge, mostly due to the trust issue.
The Indigent Client & The Trust Gap
Trust plays an important role in the attorney-client relationship. As an experienced attorney, I want my clients to trust my opinion, trust that I have their best interests at heart, and trust that I am going to do everything I can to help them out. For court appointed-clients, trust can be a more difficult thing to achieve, especially on the onset of a case. Why is there a trust issue with Court appointed cases?
- Money. The old saying “you get what you pay for” accounts for most of the trust issue here. Many appointed clients aren’t required to pay anything for a court appointed attorney (some have to pay $100/month). It makes sense that you might be a little skeptical of a guy you just met, didn’t pay for, and now have to rely on for a serious criminal matter. In many cases, a person would rather pay a small amount for a hired lawyer, even if that lawyer is far less experienced and has a poor track record, then stick with a proven experienced appointed lawyer. it always going to be an obstacle to overcome in court appointed cases.
- Choice. They don’t get to choose who their appointed attorney is. Many people don’t like to be told what to do, who to marry, where to go, etc. Same issue here with getting a court appointed lawyer.
- Information. Many appointed clients lack information on their attorney. Maybe the Court gives them your name and phone number, but they don’t know anything about you when you show up to start working on their case (background, experience, track record, etc.). This lack of knowledge, coupled with the other issues, has them assuming the worst from the very start and creates a trust issue.
- Previous Experiences. Many appointed clients have had appointed attorneys in the past. If that experience didn’t end up well, then that will play a role in how much they trust you, especially at the very beginning.
Tips on Building Trust with an Appointed Client
Here are a few good tips on building trust with an appointed client:
- Send them a initial letter (whether in jail or on bond). In the letter, give them information about you as a criminal defense attorney. Tell them a little about your background, training, success, etc. If they goal is for them to trust you, providing them with your credentials is a good place to start. Also, if possible, let them know you are already working on their case. This will also go a long way to building that relationship.
- Call or go meet with them in jail. This seems obvious, but many lawyers wait weeks to go visit their court appointed for the first time. I know we have other Court cases, but try and go as quickly as possible (I have had a few thank me for visiting them quickly).
- Personalize your communication (show them you care). It doesn’t have to be much, but simply asking a client how they are doing/feeling shows that you care for them and that will help build trust.
- Explain everything to them. We handle thousands of cases, but this may be their first case. If you are recommending a course of action (plea, trial, etc.) explain to them how you came to that solution and what the alternatives/consequences are. It easy for us to know what the right course of action is, but it’s not always so easy for them.
- The little things. The little things is what sometimes can matter the most. If for example, you are able to secure probation for a client that is in jail, but the Court date is two weeks away. Ask the Court to move the Court date up, so your client can get out of a jail sooner. Consistently taking these type of steps will not only build trust with your client, but will also give you a great reputation within the Courthouse (build trust with other clients by example).
Attorney Bryan P. Hoeller is a former prosecutor and Fort Worth trial attorney that specializes in personal injury litigation, car and truck accident cases, state and federal criminal defense, and DWI defense. For help, he can be contacted at 877-208-3382