I'm a Lawyer and Entrepreneur Who Went to Prison for 14 Months. Here Are 9 Tips for Hiring a White Collar Criminal Defense Lawyer.
Hiring a defense attorney is a monumental task, and most are monumentally unprepared for the effort.
Hiring a white-collar defense lawyer is a monumental task — and one that most entrepreneurs and businesspeople, even those who are sophisticated legal consumers, are monumentally unprepared to do.
I should know.
I’m a lawyer and entrepreneur who became addicted to prescription opioids and served almost 14 months in federal prison for a white-collar crime.
I was disbarred, and then step-by-step, lesson-by-lesson, I worked my way through the ordeal.
Related: Quit While You're Ahead
On May 5, 2021, my law license was reinstated by the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Here are some takeaways I learned from over three decades of experience on both sides of the legal system:
1. You are in trauma, whether you know it or not
Your entrepreneurship, intellect and survival skills have betrayed you. You are in pain, and will do — and pay — almost anything to make the pain go away. You’ve probably been looking over your shoulder for a long time. It’s normal to be terrified; who wouldn’t be? Practice point: no matter what you do, the pain is not going away any time soon. Beware of anyone who tells you differently.
2. Long-term plan instead of short-term relief
You know this, but you are probably in fear of what you think is the worst thing that can happen — prison. Prison is not the worst thing that can happen — the worst thing that can happen is not having a comeback story. Keep your eye on the prize. That is, a carefully and thoughtfully constructed long-term plan for health, purpose and prosperity for you and your family. It’s okay (in fact, it’s vital) to give yourself the time and space to step back and make good, thoughtful decisions. You are in the desert, and it will be a long journey to the promised land. Practice point: This is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.
3. Your brother-in-law probably knows nothing about hiring a white collar defense lawyer...
…Neither does your dentist, haircutter or almost anyone else. Everyone around you is most likely offering “well-intended advice.” And maybe already picking at your bones. But, there is dependable professional help out there in the form of private general counsel with specific experience in the intricacies of white collar defense and all of the other legal, business, family and emotional issues you are likely to face. Practice point: These are shark- infested waters and a great general counsel can help you navigate them.
4. There is very little chance that your case will go to trial
Over the past two decades, less than two percent of white collar prosecutions have gone to trial. This means that whether a “trial lawyer” has spent much of the last twenty years as a prosecutor or as a criminal defense attorney, they probably have no (or very little) white collar trial experience. But, we are stuck in an old paradigm where we think we need a trial attorney to swoop in and save the day. This might happen on television, but it almost never happens in real life. Practice point: Are you suffering from Perry Mason syndrome? Get real, and fast.
5. Ever wonder why lawyers have such fancy offices?
Do you want to pay for expensive overhead (maybe you do) or for excellent lawyering? Isn’t it more important to find out if you and an attorney have a great connection, and can work together? Has your defense attorney taken the time to really understand you and your family, your back story, all of your issues, and your life goals? Practice point: Are you sure these are the professionals you want to trust with your life?
6. Your criminal defense budget
Your criminal defense lawyer can’t do it all; you’ll need a team. Your defense attorney’s job is to marshal the best resources in order to make a persuasive presentation to the prosecutors, to the probation officer at your pre-sentence investigation, and to the judge. How much of your criminal defense budget/retainer will be allocated for experts (forensic accountants, investigators, mitigation experts, medical experts, etc.) to give a complete and accurate picture of you, your family and your side of the facts? Practice point: Make sure you fully understand — and approve — the plan and budget up front.
7. Outside your criminal defense budget
Your issues are most likely way bigger, and more complicated, than just your criminal matter. How much of your overall budget will be allocated for other attorneys and professionals (business attorneys, tax attorneys, bankruptcy lawyers, family law, civil litigation, estate planning, accountants, etc.)? How much of your overall budget will be allocated for other obligations (restitution, fines, forfeiture, taxes, antecedent debt, alimony, child support, etc.)? Practice point: Your defense attorney’s job is to get you the best sentence — they will probably not help you balance other important issues that need to be addressed.
8. Does your spouse/significant other need separate counsel?
In a word, yes. Or at least, probably. You’ve been shouldering this thing alone for so long, it’s hard to be a good partner again. Believe it or not, your spouse’s interests are probably not fully aligned with yours. They have their own body of rights that deserve professional attention. Practice point: Tell the truth, don’t tell your spouse/significant other that everything will be “okay.”
9. Out of isolation and into community
You don’t have to go through this alone. Believe it or not, there is a rich community of people who have been prosecuted for white collar crimes, and their families, who want to give of themselves freely to help you. Practice point: Don’t be afraid to reach out, join a white collar support group and benefit from the experiences of those who have been there before you.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer