The best time to call a criminal defense lawyer is before you answer any questions by the police other than what your name is. You have a right to remain silent, and a right to speak to an attorney, but the Supreme Court has said you must assert that right in order for it to be protected.
If the police have placed you under arrest and begin to interrogate you—whether they are direct about doing so or “just want to talk with you about a few things”—say this: “I would like to cooperate. First I need to speak to my attorney.” Then stick to what you have said. You may need to repeat these words a few times. The police might try to convince you into answering just a few questions. They might do this by minimizing the degree to which they plan to interrogate you or suggesting that by not answering their questions you are slowing down their investigation. Stay on message: you want to cooperate and first you need to speak to your attorney. You do not need to explain why you want to speak to an attorney or answer any questions until you get one. The police must stop their questioning and grant you access to a phone call (use it to call an attorney) within a reasonable time and before they resume their interrogation.
If you were arrested and answered police questions before speaking to an attorney, speak to a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. A criminal defense lawyer’s job is to protect your rights, so if you can, call a lawyer as soon as you can—and if you’re in jail, before calling a bail bondsman.
If you are out of jail, try to meet with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible, but after you have done a little research. Selecting an attorney is something you should do with care. Referrals from friends and acquaintances who have used the attorney and been pleased with their performance, or from other attorneys who have a sense of their colleagues’ reputations, usually provide more information to go on than a referral from a bar association, which is essentially just a listing. Past experience as a prosecutor does not necessarily produce better plea bargains. Past experience as a public defender means that the lawyer probably has a lot of experience defending cases. Most criminal defense lawyers give free consultations, and this provides you with an opportunity to check out how they ask questions and present themselves. Finally, before you hire your attorney, make sure you are clear exactly what the pay arrangement will be. Most criminal defense attorneys charge a flat fee in advance, sometimes charging half up front and the second half only if the case goes to trial. Many charge separately for “costs” like travel. Be sure you know what will be charged and what will not, and that you have a copy of the fee agreement in writing.