Five Traits of Highly Effective Criminal Defense Lawyers

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The Criminal Law Section of the San Diego County Bar Association has literally hundreds of members who specialize in criminal defense. If you have been charged with a crime in the San Diego area, you already know that your reputation, finances and possibly even your freedom may be at stake. You also understand that few decisions are more important than finding the right lawyer.

But let’s say you’ve done your homework, interviewed several candidates and have made a choice of representation. What traits should you be looking for in your lawyer to demonstrate as your case progresses? Here are a few suggestions.

Being Committed To Your Defense

Effective defense counsel cares about you and your family and takes every ethically permitted step to ensure that the rights guaranteed to all defendants by the California and United States Constitutions are protected. However minor the claimed offense, you must believe that your lawyer is one hundred percent committed to fighting for you as though it was his or her own guilt or innocence in question.

This doesn’t mean that an effective defense lawyer wins every motion or trial; nobody wins all the time. But you should never have any doubt that your lawyer is defending you to the best of his or her ability. Your lawyer should meet with you regularly and explain to you in plain language both strategy; that is, the overall plan of defense, and strategy – specific actions he or she is recommending in furtherance of that strategy.

Knowing the Territory

Lawyers who specialize in criminal defense are generally known to local prosecutors, police, and judges. If yours has a reputation for aggressive but honest and fair dealing, if not the affection of these constituencies, he or she should at least have their respect.

You are entitled to vigorous and aggressive representation. However, that doesn’t always mean a “scorched earth” strategy is the best. By relying on personal credibility and respect cultivated over time defense counsel can often get better results (for example, an agreement to the reduction of charges or release without bail) that would come from a more aggressive tack.

Let’s be clear, though. If your sense is that your lawyer is a bit too familiar with the opposition or police, ask yourself (and him or her) whether it’s a strategic move or just a lack of commitment to your defense. Listen to your instincts and don’t be shy about expressing your concerns.

Your Guilt or Innocence

Instinctively, you want your lawyer (along with everyone else) to believe you are innocent. However, the best lawyers really don’t care unduly about guilt or innocence. All they really want is for you be candid with them. These attorneys understand that their role is not to make decisions about guilt or to judge you but rather to present the most effective defense possible given the facts of the case and the bounds of ethical conduct.

Question Everything

Effective defense counsel don’t accept as true what appears in police and prosecution documents or reports. Your lawyer should make an early demand for all information the prosecution has, whether or not it supports their case. Most experienced defense lawyers employ investigators who are experienced in identifying and interviewing witnesses, evaluating evidence and otherwise developing information independently of whatever the prosecution or police have collected.


Your Right to Silence is Golden (So Remember to Exercise It)

People of a certain age will recall those World War II “Loose Lips Sink Ships” posters. Yes, it’s tempting to protest your innocence to anyone who will listen, but the less said the better. Your attorney should regularly remind you to avoid discussing the facts of your case or your defense with anyone except the defense lawyer and his or her investigator. That includes people who are on your side since they can be called as witnesses against you. The last thing you want is your Uncle Charlie being subpoenaed by the prosecution to testify about the unfortunate things you admitted to him over beers one evening.

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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