When Criminal Defense Lawyers Boast of Impressive Win Records

I’ve spent some time perusing the websites of many criminal defense lawyers and I notice a disturbing trend. Many of them are being less than honest about their “win” rates.

It is not uncommon to see lawyers boast that they have won 90% of their cases. This is a great marketing tool. Many potential unsuspecting clients will assume that the Texas State Bar tightly regulates legal advertising and no lawyer would be permitted to make such a claim if it were not true. So the unsuspecting client confronted with a potential prison term thinks to himself, “gee, if I give this lawyer $10,000″ there’s a 90% chance that he or she will ‘win’ my case and I will go free.”

The Truth About Criminal Attorney Win/Loss Records

The truth is there are no criminal defense lawyers who regularly try criminal cases in the felony courts that have anywhere close to a 90% acquittal rate in jury trials. Are the lawyers making bald face lies? Sometimes they are and other times they are simply being misleading.

First, here are some statistics. According to a Dallas Morning News survey done about ten years ago, in Dallas County, jury trials in the felony courts resulted in a not guilty verdict in about 10% of the cases. In misdemeanor courts, not guilty verdicts occurred in about 50% of the cases.

Why is there such a disparity between misdemeanor cases and felony cases? There are three reasons.

  1. First, misdemeanor trials most often consist of DWI and family violence cases. Both of those kind of cases are difficult for the State to prove.
  2. Second, misdemeanor cases are not investigated well. Apart from the brief initial investigation when an arrest is made there is usually little follow up investigation.
  3. Third, the prosecutors assigned to misdemeanor courts tend to be young and inexperienced.

More Like Wins* with an Asterisk

I noticed when looking at a number of criminal defense lawyer websites in which there was claim of 90% win rate, that many of those lawyers had left the district attorney’s office in the last year or two. So the lawyer claiming a 90% win rate is including his or her wins as a felony prosecutor, when the average felony prosecutor should expect to win 90% of his or her cases. In my mind it is clearly misleading to boast of wins when advertising as a criminal defense lawyer when one is including victories as a prosecutor.

There are other ways lawyers can justify these remarkable win statistics. I once had a conversation with an experienced colleague who told me, with evident sincerity, “I have a never lost a jury trial.” As soon as I covered up my involuntary interjection of “bullshit” with a cough, I asked him to explain. He said, “well I only count the cases in which I advised my clients to go to a jury trial, which I have done only a handful of times in my career.” A similar justification I have heard is, “I include in my win column, all the plea deals that I have considered favorable.”

I don’t mean to suggest that which lawyer you hire doesn’t make a difference. A good trial lawyer will often win a case that a poor lawyer will lose. In addition, it is true that a good lawyer will often achieve a better plea bargain or possibly cause a case to be dismissed. Measuring the win ratio for criminal attorneys is difficult indeed. No ratio will measure a lawyer’s honesty and integrity, the two qualities that are probably the most important for a criminal defense lawyer to possess. If the State is about to attempt to put an individual through the “ringer,” the last thing that individual needs is to feel cheated by their lawyer. So beware of hiring the lawyer that beats his or her chest and brags about his or her purported ridiculously high win rate.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.