Should I Hire a Civilian Attorney?

You are likely wondering “Should I hire a civilian attorney?”  You may be surprised by the answer.  If you trust your military counsel and believe that he or she knows what they are doing, then the answer is “no.”   Sometimes, a civilian defense counsel will not get better results than your military defense counsel would have.

Recently, for instance, a client contacted us wanting to hire Mr. Coombs for his upcoming court martial for sexual assault.  The client’s military counsel indicated that he was already able to secure a 9-month deal with the government.  Mr. Coombs told the client that he would not be able to “beat” a 9-month deal in light of the client’s videotaped admissions to CID and the physical evidence in the case.  The client proceeded with his appointed military defense counsel and a military judge sentenced him to 17 months in jail.  The 9-month deal protected the client and was the best possible outcome in his case. An experienced civilian defense counsel will know when they can’t help you; and an honest one will tell you that they can’t help you.

Many civilian attorneys will try to get your business by telling you that:

  • Military counsel are inexperienced;
  • Military counsel are too overworked to dedicate the needed time and attention to your case;
  • Military counsel are part of the system that is court-martialing you and therefore will not push hard enough for you;
  • “You get what you pay for” with free military counsel.

Be skeptical of these comments.  While some military counsel are inexperienced and overworked, that is not always the case.  The vast majority of military counsel are very hardworking and do have your best interests in mind.  Despite wearing the same uniform as the command that is seeking to court-martial you, anyone who has served at Trial Defense Services (TDS) will tell you that military defense counsel pride themselves on representing soldiers and also on sticking it to “the man.”  And as for the sentiment that “you get what you pay for,” Mr. Coombs can personally attest that during his time as a “free” military defense counsel, his clients received the very best defense and outstanding outcomes at no expense to them.  So sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch.

You should treat your decision to hire a civilian counsel like you would with any other important decision – do your research and get the needed facts to make a wise decision.  First, you should interview the civilian counsel that you are considering hiring.  You should ask how many years of experience the counsel has in defending soldiers, how many contested cases have they tried, and whether they have experience in your type of case.  You should also ask the civilian counsel about their plan for providing the best possible defense for you. Click here for suggested questions you should use to interview a prospective civilian counsel.

The answers these questions should provide you with a good feel for whether the civilian counsel you are considering hiring is the right fit for you.  When listening to the civilian attorney’s responses, be wary of any attorney who:

  • Tells you that they have never lost a case. If true, this simply means that the attorney has not tried very many cases.
  • Tries to scare you into hiring them.  If the attorney tells you that you have no hope of being acquitted unless you hire them, do yourself a favor and look to hire a different civilian attorney.  Never let yourself get scared or bullied into hiring a civilian attorney.
  • Tells you that your current military defense counsel is not going to fight hard for you because he or she is worried about their next duty assignment. This is an old and tired tactic to hard sell a prospective client on the need to hire a civilian attorney.  Not only is this statement untrue, it speaks to the lack of integrity of the civilian attorney.  Again, maybe you should be looking to hire a different civilian attorney.
  • Gives you a quote for representing you without looking at any information in your case or having a detailed discussion with you over the phone. If the civilian counsel gives you a quote for their retainer, and has not reviewed anything in your case or spoken to you at length, it is likely that the attorney is more interested in your money than he or she is in helping you.
  • Doesn’t return your calls or emails.  If you are paying for civilian representation, then you should expect your attorney to respond promptly to your inquiries.  If you are having a hard time reaching your defense counsel, it is likely that they are overextended.  Mr. Coombs prides himself on individual representation and being responsive to his clients.
  • Rushes you into making a decision by focusing on the untoward consequences of delay in hiring a civilian counsel.  Don’t be rushed into hiring civilian counsel.  If proceedings have already started, your military attorney can always request a delay.  While you do eventually have to make a decision one way or another, don’t let your judgment be clouded by a feeling that you have to make a decision before you have all the facts.
  • Uses any of the “stock” phrases designed to get your business:  “your defense counsel wears the same uniform as the prosecutor”; “you get what you pay for”; “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”; “your military counsel is probably just out of law school.”  Again, these are vast generalizations that may or may not be true in your particular case.  Don’t let catchphrases, rather than facts, guide your decisions.

Finally, if you are exploring the possibility of hiring a civilian counsel, there are two more things that you should keep in mind.  First, not all civilian attorneys are good at what they do.  Some civilian attorneys have very little court-martial experience, consistently obtain poor outcomes for their clients, or overextend themselves by taking on too many state, federal, and military clients.  When looking at an attorney’s website, see if they take on non-military clients (i.e., state or federal cases).  If they do, then that attorney may not have the time to devote to your case.  Second, there is a wide disparity in what civilian counsel charge for court-martial representation.  So shop around and get a good sense of what various civilian defense attorneys are charging.  Cost should not be your only consideration, but it is obviously a consideration for you to weigh.