Q & A with Ari Rief
Juris Doctor (J.D.) (law degree) from the University of San Diego School of Law
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in History from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Why did you become a lawyer?
My path to becoming a trial lawyer began after I graduated college at UCLA. I initially worked for a mortgage brokerage in San Diego, but I was appalled by the deceitful business practices in the industry. Unlike the brokers and loan officers around me, I often convinced potential customers not to refinance their home loans (which was antithetical to my job description) because, for many, it did not make sense financially. I decided quickly to leave the industry and become a lawyer—a far more suitable role for me—to achieve my life's pursuit of helping people.
My interest in litigation, negotiation, and specifically criminal law sparked while at the University of San Diego School of Law. After three particular courses where I received top grades—Criminal Law, Legal Research & Writing, and Negotiations—I then participated in three consecutive Mock Trial Tournaments, and won First Place in each competition. That led to me competing in a national tournament in a Chicago federal court. I also gained valuable real-life litigation experience both during and after law school completing four prosecutorial clerkships at three government offices: two with the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, one with the United States Attorney's Office, Criminal Division (Major Frauds Unit), and one at the San Diego City Attorney's Office (Land Use and Environmental Section). Additionally, I clerked for one year at Thorsnes Bartolotta Magure, a well-respected civil litigation firm in San Diego.
My career in criminal law began as a prosecutor—first a deputy district attorney (DDA) with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office (2011-2012) and, second, with the Amador County District Attorney's Office (2012-2015). As a DDA, I handled a wide variety of cases—from countless common misdemeanors to many serious felonies—and gained valuable negotiation and jury trial experience along the way. Now, as a defense attorney, I handle cases that range from DUI to homicide and I believe that my experience at multiple DA's Offices and in preparing cases with law enforcement provides helpful insight to share with clients.
In 2015, I moved to the Bay Area and initially joined a civil litigation law firm in Silicon Valley handling consumer protection cases against automobile manufacturers. In 2016, I returned to criminal law—my first career passion—and founded Rief Legal. Additionally, a portion of my practice is dedicated to indigent defense cases appointed through the San Mateo County Private Defender Program, which enables me to defend individuals who do not have the financial resources to hire a lawyer.
My practice enables me to help people through what's often the most difficult times in their lives—a weighty yet profoundly rewarding responsibility. Whether that means negotiating the reduction or dismissal of criminal charges or fighting a case all the way to trial, I take whatever path is needed to help. In all cases, my mission is to advise with compassion, transparency, smart strategy, and pragmatism.
Why does your former experience as a prosecutor help?
As a former prosecutor (I was a deputy district attorney in multiple California counties), I have first-hand knowledge of what it's like to be in the DA's shoes, to prepare cases with law enforcement and to negotiate with defense counsel. Understanding the behind-the-scene challenges prosecutors face I believe provides me, as a defense attorney, with an advantage when negotiating with DAs and preparing clients' cases for trial.
Does jury trial experience really matter since most cases don't go to trial?
In my strong opinion, yes it matters. It is risky to hire an attorney who lacks years of real-life jury trial experience and success. That's similar to going into surgery with a doctor who lacks surgery experience.
Also, on a day-to-day basis, the clients who have hired an attorney with a reputation for not just going to trial, but also ideally winning a lot at trial, gain an edge in pre-trial negotiations with prosecutors and judges based upon their attorney's credibility. Otherwise an attorney's threat or posturing to fight the case to trial—which is your main leverage in pretrial negotiations—is perceived as an empty threat and thus not going to be taken seriously by prosecutors or judges. In other words, that lawyer is less likely to get as good of offers to resolve cases for clients in the big picture.
If you hire me, you can rest assured that I've at least gone to jury trial dozens of times—and won the vast majority of them, too. My success rate in trial is ~80%. The trials in which I was unsuccessful were when I was a brand new attorney over a decade ago, which illustrates my point that experience matters.
What's the "Dropjail Method"?
I have a 3-part negotiation strategy with prosecutors and judges that I call my "Dropjail Method" because it routinely leads to the most criminal charges and jail time being dropped.
First, I highlight some issue(s) of proof in the prosecution's case if it went to trial—that is, anything that could realistically lead to at least one juror (which is all we need) not being fully convinced from the evidence and therefore having reasonable doubt. Don't forget: No matter how strong the evidence may seem against you early on in a case, it's a different ballgame in trial. Every case for the prosecution has its challenges.
The second step of the Dropjail Method—just as important as the first step to present a realistic chance of winning at trial—is to present "mitigation" information about my client, which are facts about my client's life and case that highlight how he or she is a good person and not a further threat to the community.
The third and final step is to explore the most minimal charges and punishment possible in the event my client were to accept responsibility early in the case—which is a very important factor for prosecutors and judges who strongly favor efficient resolution of cases. I do this in a pragmatic way without admitting any guilt on my client's part.
The key to the Dropjail Method is to skillfully balance all three objectives at the same time. When delivered succinctly by an attorney who knows how to read a room, it repeatedly produces top negotiation results.
Do you have a limit on how many cases you take on?
Yes. With any law firm, the more cases a lawyer takes, the less time and attention that lawyer can devote to each individual client. So, as a general matter, I don't just take on any client who calls my office. And I don't simply collect attorney's fees and then pass the work off to less experienced associates.
My pattern and practice to address the concern about availability and to ensure that proper care is reserved for each case is to limit the number of new clients I take on at a time. Although it's not an exact science, by thoughtfully placing some necessary limits on my caseload, I can best serve the clients I do represent and provide top tier legal services.
Is hiring a bigger firm with more support better?
There's often a perception, particularly in civil law, that bigger is better. The powerhouse large firm with hundreds of lawyers enables a client's case to gain immediate credibility. Criminal law, as a whole, operates quite a bit differently. Many of the very best criminal defense lawyers in the country have solo boutique practices and operate independently or have a very small firm of only a couple lawyers. And, in fact, hiring a larger firm, particularly in the criminal law context, will often lead to your case being handled by an associate who lacks the trial experience and courtroom credibility that you believe you're paying for.
But what if the solo lawyer or small firm (like my law office, Rief Legal) needs assistance with a complicated legal issue? It's a fair question. After all, criminal law is vast and complex. To me, the answer is to have a network of peers and a pool of knowledge and experience that you can draw from—an invaluable and necessary asset for any serious litigator. To that end, I belong to multiple criminal defense listserves, chair the Criminal Law Section of my local bar association and am a member of top defense organizations, such as California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ), an affiliate of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the California Public Defenders Association (CPDA), and the San Mateo County Private Defender Program. With a substantive network of hundreds of the best criminal lawyers across the state, I have the critical support I need in complex cases when issues arise.
The bottom line is that I certainly do not claim to know everything. It'd be foolish and arrogant to think otherwise. That is why I subscribe to the best legal research tools in the industry and attend various monthly trainings and conferences to stay up-to-date on any changes in the law and criminal justice system.
What will I do to help you in your case?
There's often at least two sides to every story; I'm here to tell your side. And not just regarding the facts of your case to support a legal defense. I'm also here to tell your story as a person—to show your goodness, to show the challenges you've faced, and to illustrate how you're not a one-dimensional criminal that they've painted you to be, even if you've made some mistakes in life. The bottom line: Whether you're completely guilty or innocent or somewhere in between, there are steps I take in early negotiations to show the judge and prosecution why you deserve a chance instead of a harsh punishment—and to do it in a way that's succinct and reasonable.
Second, my role is to expose the weaknesses in the prosecution's evidence against you. Remember in this country, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The prosecution alone has the burden to prove that you are guilty of the charges they accuse you of committing. It's important to understand the distinction that you don't have to prove that you're innocent; they have to prove that you're guilty. In fact, you don't have to prove anything.
When it comes to proof, the grounds for an officer to arrest or issue a citation to someone is NOT the same as the grounds needed to convict that person of a crime in court. Police only need "probable cause" to arrest or cite you—in other words, evidence that just shows you're probably guilty. But that's not enough (or at least shouldn't be) to convict you in court. Instead, the prosecution needs to show a jury enough credible evidence against you to prove each element of each charge "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a significantly higher burden of proof for the government.
Remember, legally speaking, you're only guilty if, before trial, you plead (or admit) that you're guilty or, at the conclusion of a trial, you're found to be guilty. In a jury trial, that means 12 strangers have to unanimously (meaning all 12) vote to convict you. If JUST ONE juror has a doubt about any element within any charged offense, then so long as that doubt is not outlandishly unreasonable, that means you cannot be convicted of that charge.
Further, even if you're convicted of something, the fight doesn't end there. I next advocate against any unjustified jail time, seek alternative rehabilitative solutions, and ultimately seek to minimize the terms of any punishment you may face.
Finally, my role throughout any case is to keep you well-informed so that you're not alone in this process. My goal is always to make everything as understandable and the least intimidating as possible for my client and to provide the most valuable legal and pragmatic guidance to produce the best result possible in your case. You're likely going to be confronted with a difficult decision to make (for example, should you take a specific deal or should you take your chances at trial?) and you'll need someone to trust who will help you make the decision that's right for you.
How much do you charge? What are your attorney's fees?
ALL case quotes require a consultation with me. The following is NOT a guarantee of what your quoted fee will be. But to give you some general idea so that you're not operating in the dark, misdemeanor cases (including DUIs) typically range from $2,900 to $3,900. Complicating factors in a case could result in higher fees.
For standard non-"strike" felony cases or felonies without any prior strikes, fees generally start from $6,900 to $8,900. That includes representation through a preliminary hearing and up to, but not including, trial. For serious and/or violent strike cases, or cases with prior strikes, fees generally start from at least $10,000.
In either misdemeanors or felonies, if your case went to a jury trial, there is a fee -- generally $750 per day of trial. Please note that most cases do not require going to trial. Also, in some cases, it may be worth hiring an expert witness or other specialized service. These costs do not apply in the majority of cases.
Are there payment plans? How do they work?
Yes. Depending on your case and quoted fee, an in-house payment plan typically will be split into 3 or 4 equal payments. For example, if a case quote is $2,900, there would be a monthly payment of either $725 (if split into 4 payments) or $966.66 (if split into 3 payments). Again, this is just an example to give you an idea of how it works.
Where is Rief Legal located? Are video visits offered?
I have two office locations in the Bay Area -- one on both sides of the bay where I split my time. I have an office in San Mateo County (in Redwood City two blocks from the courthouse) and an office in Contra Costa County (in Moraga, which serves as a midway point for most Alameda and Contra Costa County clients). Most of my cases are in those three counties.
For addresses and maps to the offices, please click
Regarding video conference visits, yes, I absolutely offer that service (and was providing that option even before the pandemic). Most clients prefer to meet remotely. Many sneak away while at work to have Zoom meetings or phone calls with me without having to take time off from work. It's a convenient solution. Also, it allows me to meet more frequently. Even when busy at court, I can often sneak away for a video chat or phone call.
In addition to being a former DA, were you ever a public defender, too?
Unlike most other former prosecutors, I also have had the unique experience of handling the intense demands of an indigent defense caseload (i.e., the duties of a public defender). In other words, I've handled high volumes of cases on both sides of the criminal courtroom meaning I have a lot of experience and perspective when defending my clients now.
To excel as a lawyer in the world of criminal law, it takes grit. There's no question about that. But the best lawyers, in my opinion, are not only versed in the law and thick-skinned; importantly, they can also "read a room" and use their people skills to advocate for their clients. I feel fortunate to have prosecution and public defender experience under my belt because it helps me to read the room. That knowledge and perspective helps me to be the best possible advocate for my clients.
As a lawyer, how would you describe yourself?
I would say (and I think hundreds of former clients would agree) that I'm a straightshooter, offer very pragmatic advice, that I'm easy to talk to and I'm easy to work with, in general. For example, I recognize that many of my clients may not be too familiar with the legal system. I'm here to help you, not make you feel worse. So, if things need to be explained more than once, that's completely okay.
Is everything 100% confidential?
Yes. Even if you don't hire me, ultimately, whatever you tell me will be between us. Your ability to talk with me freely and comfortably is important when preparing your defense. Whether you're innocent, guilty, or somewhere in between, having frank conversations will help me to best advise you.
Will I work directly with you?
Yes, if you hire my law office, you will work directly with me, Ari Rief. I prepare your case and attend court. I will directly take your phone calls and answer your questions. I may, on occasion, due to court scheduling conflicts have an associate handle non-substantive matters in court (such as to schedule a court date to a date I am available). On occasion, I will team up with another lawyer on substantive issues. However, as a general matter, hiring Rief Legal means you're hiring me to handle your case.
Do you take cases in other parts of California?
No, when it comes to criminal and DUI defense, I only accept local Bay Area cases. And within the Bay Area, most of my cases are within San Mateo, Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties.
If you have a case in another part of the state, I could try (no promises) to connect you with another criminal defense lawyer in your local area.