What Does A Criminal Defense Attorney Do?

When facing criminal charges in Minnesota, defendants often ask, “what does a criminal offense attorney do to help clients win a case?” If you have been charged with a crime, you could be looking at extensive jail time, and/or significant fines. A criminal defense attorney will assess your case from a legal perspective, investigating collecting evidence, and interviewing witnesses to determine how you should proceed. He or she will assist with the jury selection process, file motions with the court, and negotiate with the prosecutor to reduce or eliminate your criminal charges. Hiring a criminal defense lawyer will substantially improve your odds of obtaining a favorable outcome. 

Defense attorneys can be court-appointed to handle your case, or private attorneys hired by you directly. The court may also allow some defendants to represent themselves if they meet certain requirements. 

What Does a Criminal Defense Attorney Do to Help Your Case?

Your criminal defense lawyer will fulfill various roles during the course of your case. Some of your lawyer’s duties will include:

Infographics of what does a criminal defense attorney do to help your case

Investigating Your Case 

The defense attorney (private or court-appointed) commences an investigation into your case during the initial meeting. He or she will try to gather as much information about your case as possible. The attorney will ask you pointed questions regarding your case to help determine what legal options and defenses may be available to you. 

The defense attorney will obtain the police report and determine the methods used to gather evidence and information for the case. Your attorney may also interview witnesses to the event to gather more information about your case. 

If your case involves an expert witness, your attorney may question that witness regarding the testimony he or she may present. The attorney uses all these details to prepare a strong defense strategy for your case. 

The law allows the defense attorney to examine the prosecution’s case before it gets to the Jury. This law provides an avenue for the attorney to look for any proof that may help discredit the prosecution’s case. The attorney may, for instance, have the evidence in your case tested by an independent lab. 

Guiding You Through the Legal System 

A defense attorney who has handled criminal cases that are similar to yours can help you navigate your case through the criminal judicial system. The attorney will understand and follow the written rules and regulations, including the local court rules. An experienced attorney is also familiar with various “unwritten rules” specific to your jurisdiction. 

In some jurisdictions, for instance, prosecutors may be unwilling to negotiate plea bargains with defendants who represent themselves. 

A defense attorney who is familiar with Minnesota laws and procedures can also find information about previous court decisions that may impact the outcome of your case. The attorney can, for instance, leverage his or her understanding of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to determine whether your arrest was legal. 

Negotiating with the Prosecution 

A defense attorney may negotiate a plea bargain with the prosecutor on your behalf. Most criminal cases in Minnesota are resolved through plea bargains before the cases ever reach trial. In a plea bargain, you would plead guilty, usually to lesser charges, in exchange for more lenient sentencing or to have related charges dismisses. A plea bargain can mean the difference between sentencing for misdemeanor vs. felony offenses. It can result in a sentence reduction or the elimination of some of the charges you were facing. 

Presenting Your Defense in Court 

If a plea deal is not possible, your case will proceed to trial. If that happens, your attorney will present your account of what transpired before the judge and jury and cross-examine the state’s witnesses to convince the jury that the burden of proof has not been met. Your attorney will need to present various types of evidence and convincing arguments to increase the chances of obtaining a not guilty verdict from the judge or jury. He or she may use expert testimony to back up your claims. Your lawyer may also file motions to suppress illegally-obtained evidence, file a motion to change venues, or even get your charges dismissed.


If you are found guilty of the charges, you have the right to appeal your conviction or sentence. Your attorney can request an appellate court to evaluate your conviction. The appellate court will establish whether any involved parties made a mistake during the trial. These parties include your trial attorney, the trial judge, and the jury. 

Appellate courts require criminal appeals to follow specific procedures and regulations. You must follow specific guidelines when serving documents. You must also meet specific deadlines when lodging your notice of appeal, requesting records from your trial, and submitting appellate briefs. 

Your criminal defense attorney will guide you in filing an appeal that follows the established procedures and timelines. The attorney will ensure you have filed the correct documents at the right time. 

Should You Hire a Private Criminal Defense Attorney or Use a Public Defender? 

Hiring a private defense attorney or using a public defender comes with separate advantages and disadvantages. It is best to consider the pros and cons before deciding.

Pros of Hiring a Private Defense Attorney 

A private attorney often has a more manageable caseload than a public defender. As such, the private criminal defense attorney can dedicate more time to your case. He or she can use this time to review the facts of your case, evaluate your legal options, and gather the information that can strengthen your defense. Your attorney can also identify gaps in the prosecution’s case that could result in your charges getting reduced or dropped altogether. 

Since you are paying for legal services and associated legal expenses, your defense attorney will have more resources to build a strong defense. The attorney may hire an expert witness to explain certain aspects of your case to the jury. He or she may use independent labs to test evidence the prosecution intends to present against you. 

The defense attorney can also bring private investigators on board to help collect crucial evidence to build a strong defense. The attorney may also work closely with support staff and paralegals to improve your chances of realizing the best possible outcome. 

A private attorney does not rely on the court for appointments. Instead, he or she is personally selected and must depend on satisfied clients to grow his or her business and reputation. For this reason, the attorney will be motivated to do a great job.

Cons of Hiring a Private Defense Attorney

The main disadvantage of hiring a private defense attorney for most criminal defendants is the cost. When you hire a private criminal defense lawyer, the attorney fees and court costs will be out-of-pocket. However, many people who are facing criminal charges secure personal loans or dip into their savings if necessary to hire a private attorney to increase their chances of winning. 

Pros of Using a Public Defender 

A public defender offers legal support and representation to defendants who lack the financial muscle to hire a private defense attorney. A financially insecure defendant can receive legal services without worrying about the costs. 

Public defenders handle a wide array of criminal cases. They regularly work with local law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges. They can leverage this relationship to help the defendant secure a favorable plea deal. 

Cons of Using a Public Defender 

A public defender works for a county or state government. The defender often earns less than a private attorney. He or she is also likely to have huge caseloads because many criminal defendants cannot afford the legal services of a private attorney. These dynamics can keep the public defender from dedicating more time to your case. He or she is also more likely to make mistakes due to inadequate preparation. 

Because of handling large caseloads, a public defender may not find time to meet with you to discuss your case. It is not uncommon for clients to meet with their public defenders shortly before entering a plea agreement. 

Defenders may also try to negotiate plea deals for as many defendants as possible to deal with the massive caseload. That might explain why only a few criminal cases proceed to trial. This strategy can prevent public defenders from dedicating the time, effort, and resources required to build a formidable defense that could have avoided or reduced the consequences of a conviction. 

When a public defender is appointed, the choice of attorney lies with the court, not the defendant. If you are discontented with the quality of legal service the public defender is offering, getting a new lawyer can be a hard task. 

Even after reviewing the above advantages and disadvantages, you might still wonder whether private defense attorneys offer better representation than public defenders. Various studies show that defendants realize the same outcome whether they hire a private attorney or use a public defender. According to a 2011 study, defendants working with private attorneys and public defenders realized almost the same conviction and sentencing rates.

Certain confounding variables may affect the reliability of such statistical evidence. Defendants represented by private attorneys, for instance, are likely to be first-time offenders. Those represented by public defenders are more likely to be repeat offenders. Another hotly debated topic in the legal system is whether private attorneys are better at negotiating plea bargains than public defenders. 

In the end, the quality of legal support and representation boils down to the experience, skill set, and dedication of the attorney in question. It does not matter whether he or she is a private defense attorney or a public defender. Remember, many private attorneys may have served as prosecutors or public defenders at some point in their careers. 

The Cost of a Private Attorney 

Private criminal defense attorneys work on an hourly or fixed-fee arrangement. They are barred from working on a contingency basis, a payment arrangement that relies on the outcome of your case. 

If you hire an attorney on an hourly basis, or you opt for an attorney who charges a fixed fee, your cost will generally depend on the severity of your offense and the time and effort your lawyer must spend on your defense. In most cases, you should expect to pay more for a felony defense than a misdemeanor defense. 

No matter the payment arrangement, many defense attorneys will start working on your case after you pay a retainer fee. As your case moves through the legal system, your attorney should give you occasional statements, showing the amount of time spent on your case, tasks completed, and the amount of retainer spent. If the retainer depletes, the lawyer will request additional payment. 

If you are financially challenged and cannot afford a private attorney, the court may assign a public defender (government-paid) to your case. 

You might not qualify for free defense counsel if your income is determined to be sufficient to pay attorney fees. Your right to free defense counsel does not amount to your right to choose a lawyer. The court will pick the lawyer for you. 

When Is the Best Time to Hire a Defense Attorney? 

For most criminal defendants, the issue is not whether they need to hire a lawyer, but when to hire a criminal defense attorney

In most cases, it is advisable to hire a criminal defense attorney as soon as you realize you may be facing charges. Since anything you say can be used against you if you are prosecuted, you should request an attorney before answering any questions. If you involve an experienced defense attorney from the onset, your lawyer may be able to have your criminal charges reduced or dropped early on, before your case even gets to trial.


Although hiring a criminal defense lawyer significantly improves your chances of achieving a favorable outcome, some defendants choose to handle their cases on their own. “Pro per” and “pro se” are legal terms used by lawyers and judges to refer to defendants who prefer to represent themselves. The court decides whether a defendant is eligible for self-representation. The judge evaluates the competency of the defendant to protect the defendant’s right to counsel. 

When deciding whether a defendant can self-represent, the judge considers the severity of the crime and the education and language abilities of the defendant. The judge also considers the defendant’s understanding of the court proceeding and whether the defendant is intentionally surrendering his or her right to legal representation.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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