Things To Look For When Retaining An Attorney
Interviewer: How would you compare representing yourself versus trying to get a public defender versus a private attorney? What are the good and the bad in those scenarios?
Ben Kelsen: So I would say the following: Representing yourself is a very bad idea. Unless a person is trained in the areas of law – I don’t mean necessarily that they went to law school but that have the experience to know the ins and outs of the legal system – they may not know what they are getting into and setting themselves up for. They may not know the sentences that they may have.
I just witnessed yesterday in court a young man who was pleading guilty in front of a superior court for a felony on his own and truth be told there were defenses that he himself was speaking about – that the police stopped him, he had not committed any traffic offenses but they searched his vehicle, or things of that nature – and he was pleading guilty to something that he didn’t necessarily need to be pleading guilty to or perhaps could have gotten a better deal or a better outcome had he consulted with a lawyer. So that is the first thing.
As far as public defenders versus private counsel, public defenders (contrary to what many people say) are real attorneys and in fact some of the very best criminal defense attorneys in the state of New Jersey are public defenders. I learned a tremendous amount from them and I contact them and speak to them for advice and for counsel on my own cases.
The difference is that public defenders are overworked and underpaid and will not have the same amount of time to devote to your specific case as a private attorney will, and so as with anything in life, you get what you pay for. If you hire somebody to come and deal with it and handle your case for you and you’re paying for it, they’ll be there to answer your phone calls when you have a question and they’ll spend as much time as they can answering your questions, going over things with you, and trying to make sure that you understand every single step of the way what is going on. A public defender may not have that same luxury to that extent. On the flip side, public defenders as part of the state have investigators at their disposal; they have other assets at their disposal and tools at their disposal – which, if you are hiring private counsel, you are going to have to pay for out of your own pocket. So for example, if you want an investigator to come in and follow up on something, the public defender’s office has investigators and they’ll send those people out and obviously you are not paying for the public defender; you’re only paying a reduced rate depending on your case.
Whereas if you want to hire someone privately through private counsel it could be thousands of dollars. Those are things that need to be taken into account.
Interviewer: What makes your office and your representation different, special, unique, compared to everyone else?
Ben Kelsen: One is that I try to make sure that each of my clients gets the personal touch. When they call me and they’re talking to me, I may have an associate make appearances, I may have an associate help me with preparation of briefs or documents or things like that, but one is running the case.
That’s as opposed to another situation where you may be going through a well-known law firm, but you may not be getting that well-known lawyer who you saw in the newspaper.
So that’s one issue. Number two is that there are firms that, simply because of the fact that they’ve gotten a tremendous amount of press or because they have been around for a certain amount of time, will demand certain types of fees that we do not charge. We try to work with people within reason in a way that will be cost-effective for everybody but not something that could break the bank. We have to be realistic in terms of the worth and in terms of what the fee is going to be, but not charging $25,000 just to give you the privilege of walking through the front door (which is what some of them will do).
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you want to talk about with the general criminal section?
Ben Kelsen: I think the main things are: don’t go into court by yourself, always consult with an attorney, and the other thing I should have mentioned earlier which is if an attorney offers you a deal that sounds too good to be true – it probably is. For example, if you are looking at three second-degree charges and five third-degree charges and somebody says, “I’ll represent you for $2,500,” that’s probably not a good idea.
It’s probably either that the attorney does not have the requisite experience or they are not going to do any kind of work that’s needed on the case in order to give you proper representation. Unless that person is a close family friend or owes you a favor or wants to help you out for some other type of reason, it’s too good to be true.
Which Courts in New Jersey Does Attorney Ben Kelsen Practice In?
Interviewer: So what courts do you regularly practice in? What are their names and locations?
Ben Kelsen: We practice throughout the state in both the state and federal levels. Within the state level we have two courts. There are administrative law courts, which are separate entities in and of themselves. But essentially we have what is called the Superior Court and the Municipal Court. The way that it works in many jurisdictions is that whether or not your charge is a misdemeanor or a felony you would go to the same county courthouse, whenever the county seat is located.
In New Jersey, every single municipality has its own municipal court. There are some municipal courts that have now joined up in order to save taxpayers money, and have consolidated services so that they will be sharing a building or they’ll be sharing services in some other fashion. But every single municipality has its own municipal court. So the municipal courts will hear matters referring to borough ordinances or municipal ordinances referring to disorderly persons offenses and traffic violations. They are also going to be the court of first appearance for indictable offenses. If a matter is taken on as an indictable offense and it is going to be prosecuted by the county prosecutor’s office, then that would be handled in the Superior Court itself.