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Switching Lawyers Right Before Trial

Getting ready for a criminal trial is a stressful time. It’s particularly stressful for the relationship between the lawyer trying the case and the person who is trusting the lawyer to try the case well. The lawyer may see the case one way, and the client may have a very different, even inconsistent, view of how the case should be tried.

As a result, it is not uncommon for a person accused of a crime to try to find a new lawyer shortly before trial. The problem, however, is that often the court is uninterested in upsetting its schedule to allow a new lawyer to come into the case.

When does a court grant a motion for new trial? In the Fourth Circuit, which decides the rules for federal trial courts in Maryland, the Virginias, and the Carolinas, the case that describes how a trial court resolves a request for a new lawyer during a trial is United States v. Mullen.

The court should look at three things.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.

First, a trial court in the Fourth Circuit is required to conduct an inquiry into the specific facts about why the person is unhappy with his lawyer. The Fourth Circuit says this is necessary “to determine if good cause for substitution of counsel exists.”

Second, the court is supposed to consider how timely the motion for a new lawyer was made. If the client complains about his lawyer six months before trial, the court is going to look at that more favorably than a request that comes six minutes before trial.

Finally, the court has to look at why the client wants a new lawyer. The key question is whether there’s a complete breakdown in communication. If the lawyer and client aren’t working together at all, the court will be much more likely to grant a motion for a new lawyer.

The lesson here is clear – if you’re going to file a motion for a new lawyer, you need to ask early and be detailed in your request.

Is that the best thing to do? Maybe not. The trouble is that filing a motion for new counsel reveals to the government the problems you’re having with your current lawyer. The government may get a tactical advantage by knowing that your lawyer and you are not getting along.

The best thing to do before a criminal trial, is to make sure the lawyer is communicating well with the client. There’s a lot riding on that relationship, and if the lawyer and client are able to talk, it’s a lot more likely that no one is going to need to file a motion for new counsel.