Getting a Lawyer for an Appeal

The truth is, getting a different lawyer for an appeal is the smart way to go. The process and skills required are different than those pertaining to trial-level proceedings. In many areas of law, including criminal appeals, engaging the right professional support can make a difference.

If you've already been through a trial with your defense attorney, chances are you've developed a good relationship and want them to handle the next phase of your case. However, that may not be the right option for either you or your attorney.

The following is an overview of why it makes sense to get a different lawyer for an appeal.

What Is an Appeal?

An appeal is a request to a higher court to review and change the decision of a lower court. It's not a retrial. Appeals are typically undertaken when there is a belief that a legal error significantly affected the trial outcome. It's a legal argument that the trial was flawed in some way.

Unlike trial courts, appellate courts do not hear testimonies or review evidence. Instead, they review the transcript and focus on legal arguments stating that the trial court made a mistake in coming to its decision. If errors are found, the appeals court may reverse the conviction and return the case to the district court for retrial.

The appellate procedure operates under strict deadlines. Many appeals must be filed within 30 days of the lower court's decision.

Why Should I Get a Different Lawyer for an Appeal?

Trial lawyers and appellate lawyers often have vastly different skill sets. Trials require the skills of a lawyer who has experience in the courtroom and making a strong case to jurors. Trial lawyers need to be conscious of multiple, rapidly approaching deadlines and must also be extremely careful in their negotiations with opposing counsel. Because they're trying to persuade a defendant's peers rather than fellow lawyers, they also must be skilled in presenting facts and breaking the law down into understandable terms.

By contrast, appeals often involve large amounts of writing, legal research — whether online or at the law library — and arguing complex legal doctrines before a judge or panel of judges. Appellate lawyers are accustomed to having enough time to research legal issues in depth. They write long briefs with intricate arguments. They come to the courtroom extremely well-prepared, becoming experts on the cases before them and the applicable laws. An oral argument, in which an appellate attorney faces a barrage of questions from appellate judges, requires a very different skill set.

After all, when arguing appeals, attorneys must be able to parry often disconnected questions from jurists while also couching their arguments within the broader context of the law.

Generally, lawyers find that they can best serve their clients when they focus on either their trial skills or their appellate skills, but not both at the same time. So, if your case is past the trial phase and headed to an appellate court, it may be in your best interest to find a new attorney who specializes in appellate practice.

Self-help, such as representing yourself, is not recommended.

Costs and Affordability

Appellate lawyers often command higher fees because of the specialized nature of their work.

If affordability is a concern, many states have public defenders or assigned counsel for those with criminal matters who can't afford their own attorney.

Those with civil legal matters can contact service providers that offer legal resources or referrals for finding legal help. Many of these organizations are nonprofits. They help people with legal problems by offering free legal help as well as low-cost legal help.

In general, they are aimed at helping people with low incomes. So, you will probably have to meet income standards.

Where to Get a Referral for an Attorney To Handle Your Appeal

Finding the right appellate attorney might involve more than simply hiring the first attorney you find in a directory. It will probably involve researching lawyers who specialize in your type of case. Certain factors are important to consider. They are:

  • The attorney's experience
  • The success rate in similar appeals
  • Your comfort level with the attorney

Your existing attorney might also provide valuable referrals to appellate attorneys.

Organizations that can provide attorney referrals and low-cost legal aid:

  • Local Bar Associations: Statewide and local bar associations have attorney referral services. You can tell them what type of case you have and they will suggest the names of attorneys that handle those types of cases.
  • Directory of law school pro bono programs: Find a law school pro bono program in your state. For example, the University of Maryland's law school offers a criminal appellate clinic. Upper-level law students represent clients who have been convicted of serious criminal offenses before Maryland's intermediate appellate court. It is a free legal clinic for those who are accepted.
  • Volunteer Lawyers Project/Civil Appeals Clinic: The Civil Appeals Clinic is limited to low-income persons. It only handles civil cases, not criminal cases. It's available to those in the Greater Boston area.
  • Public defenders: Public defenders (or other assigned counsel) generally will handle the first appeal for those unable to pay to appeal a criminal conviction. Subsequent appeals may be handled by public interest or civil rights groups.
  • Statewide resources: Some states offer a wide range of low-cost and reduced-fee legal services. Maryland, for example, has quite a number of such offerings, including help with family law and domestic violence matters, through the People's Law Library.
  • American Bar Association's free legal answers: This site allows people with low incomes to ask questions online and have a lawyer answer them. They will not answer questions involving crimes.
  • Legal Services Corporation (LSC): Find legal aid in your community for people with low incomes.
  • Provides free legal aid answers to your legal questions. These services are for people with low to moderate incomes.

Whatever You Decide, Be Clear

Because trial and appellate work are two different types of legal practice, the lawyer who represented you at the trial won't automatically file or handle your appeal. You must ask your lawyer to do so or find another attorney who will. If you want to appeal your conviction, be sure to specifically and clearly inform your attorney of that fact.

The U.S. Supreme Court determined that an attorney's failure to file a notice of appeal doesn't necessarily constitute ineffective assistance of counsel if the defendant didn't clearly convey their wishes on the subject.

Get Professional Legal Help With Your Appellate Case

If you're considering appealing your case, you'll want a strong appellate attorney in your corner, especially if it's a criminal case. Free legal services are available. However, sound legal advice and legal information are essential. There's quite a bit of legal analysis and writing that can go into an appeal, not to mention important filing deadlines and possible court appearances. Legal assistance is available. You can learn more today by contacting a criminal defense attorney in your area.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.