The Flat Fee.
Most criminal defense lawyers charge flat fees. The fee is paid at the beginning of the case, in full. Sometimes, depending on the case, the lawyer, and the relationship with the client, some payment arrangement is agreed to.
The fee secures representation from the point that the lawyer is retained (usually right after charges are filed or someone is arrested) until disposition of the case at the trial court level. That includes investigation, all court appearances, any necessary pretrial motions, hearings, and trial.
There is no discount if the lawyer obtains a dismissal of the charges fairly quickly, or negotiates some other favorable disposition, nor is there an extra trial fee if you decide to exercise your constitutional right to a trial.
Generally, because of the amount of work that goes into a good defense – even in “minor” cases – this arrangement results in lower fees for the client than an hourly arrangement would.
Most good criminal defense lawyers don’t sell time.
The legend is that Abraham Lincoln said “an attorney’s time is his stock in trade.” In some legal specialties that may still hold true. But good criminal defense lawyers don’t sell people time. Clients pay for legal knowledge, experience, judgment, advice, research and writing skills, advocacy skills, and a lot of other skills and services they may or may not ever see.
When your liberty and future are at stake in a criminal case, you shouldn’t have to make decisions based on your budget. Defending a person in a criminal case – any criminal case – is a complex endeavor. It can be done on the cheap, perhaps, but not well.
The flat fee ensures that the client knows exactly how much the fees will be. And once the fee is paid, critical decisions about how the case will be defended can be made without consideration of cost; pursuing another motion or going to trial instead of accepting a plea offer will not increase the cost, and will not require more money be paid.
A couple of points.
First: A bit of free advice: You are strongly cautioned to avoid choosing a lawyer whose main attribute is charging low fees or being the most inexpensive lawyer in town. As with most everything else in life, you get what you pay for.
Second: It isn’t helpful to call around to various lawyers and ask what each charges for a particular case. Except for some very minor types of traffic cases, a quality lawyer usually would not and should not quote you a fee over the phone. It takes a much more extensive conversation and consideration of many factors unique to your case before a lawyer has enough information to set an appropriate fee.
Lastly, “one size” does not “fit all” when it comes to setting legal fees. Two different people, charged with the exact same offense, may have dramatically different circumstances. The facts of one case may be very different from those of the other. One of the people may have an extensive criminal record that will impact the case, the other person may not. The fee in the more complex case can be several times the cost of the simpler case.
Costs and Expenses.
Many cases require the assistance of a private investigator. Your lawyer can’t go interview witnesses by himself. If he does, he runs the risk of becoming a witness himself. Here is how that can happen:
Your lawyer goes to interview Bill, who is a witness to an argument you had with your neighbor. Bill tells your lawyer that he saw the whole thing and is certain that you never punched your neighbor.
At trial, Bill testifies differently. He says that he is pretty sure you did punch your neighbor, because he saw your neighbor bending over holding his stomach, and besides, Bill says, he didn’t really see the whole argument anyway.
Your lawyer would like to cross examine Bill and introduce to the jury Bill’s earlier statement in which he said he saw the whole thing and was certain that you didn’t punch your neighbor. But the only witness to Bill’s first statement is your lawyer, because he went and spoke with Bill alone. Your lawyer can’t be both the lawyer and a witness. He won’t be able to introduce that prior statement that is so helpful to you. That evidence, that might have raised reasonable doubt all by itself, is lost.
So, in many cases the services of an investigator are critical, and a good investigator is worth his weight in gold to a criminal defense lawyer.
But investigators aren’t free. You will have to pay for his services, and that cost is usually not included in the flat fee for your lawyer’s services.
Some criminal cases involve specialized issues that can only be challenged by experts. Your defense may require the assistance of experts in fingerprints, accident reconstruction, accounting, or even DNA.
Again, the cost for these professionals will be in addition to the flat fee you have paid for your lawyer.
There are other costs that could arise in the course of your defense. Trial or motion exhibits might have to be created, or there may be unusual travel involved for your lawyer. These kinds of expenses are usually in addition to the flat fee for representation.
It is important that you know how costs and expenses outside of the flat fee will be handled. Your lawyer should be able to answer that question easily, and he should be able to discuss with you the general likelihood of incurring additional expenses before you hire him. Unexpected needs may arise during the course of the case, certainly, so he can’t guarantee that there will not be any additional costs, but he should be able to give you a reasonable prediction.
The Bottom Line.
You just got arrested, or got a summons or subpoena, or got a call from a police officer who “wants to talk with you.” This is not the time to go it alone. Criminal charges never come at a good time, but when they do come, your defense has to be your first priority. This is the rainy day, the rock and the hard place you were warned about. No one budgets for criminal defense. But when the time comes, your defense is the most important thing in your life.
These days, people are charged with crimes for a bewildering array of reasons, many times for actions they had no idea were criminal. Penalties for criminal convictions now reach far beyond the jail sentence or probation you will serve. Your ability to keep your driver’s license, obtain credit, get a mortgage or student loan, get or keep a job requiring a professional license, or to do any of a myriad of other important things, can be destroyed. Generally, a criminal conviction will be on your record for life.