For a lot of people, this is the big question.
The answer is, it depends. Get used to that answer, because you will hear it in response to many of your questions about a criminal case.
The cost of a criminal defense lawyer depends upon:
- The severity of the charge and the potential sentence,
- The facts of the case,
- The city/town/area where the case is located,
- The court the case is in,
- The extent of your criminal record, if you have one,
- Your goals for the case,
- The experience and reputation of the lawyer.
There are other factors that could enter into the equation, but these are the main factors. Obviously, a murder case in New York City is going to cost more to defend than shoplifting in rural Vermont, for example. But in between those extremes, it can be hard to understand how lawyer fees are set, and why.
When you are talking about costs for criminal defense, there are some standard concepts that apply, and we will talk about those below.
But before we get there,
Here is the simple truth: A Good Criminal Defense Lawyer is Expensive.
A good criminal defense lawyer is going to cost a lot of money. Get comfortable with that, or at least accept it. He or she might be able to work with you on payment terms, and might be flexible in some ways, but this is not the time or place to be bargain hunting.
Why are criminal defense fees expensive?
- Criminal cases are hard. You have the power and resources of the government against you. Most people assume that if someone is arrested or charged, he or she must be guilty, and should be punished.
- In the courtroom, your lawyer is going to be your only friend. No one else will be looking out for your interests. Its all on that lawyer.
- The stakes are high. Your freedom, your livelihood, your family. Your future.
- Criminal defense is highly specialized. The law is complex. The skills needed to effectively advocate for you are very specialized and are only gained by experience and practice. Lots of lawyers try it. Only some last and get good at it. Only a few ever get really good at it.
Depending upon your case, a good lawyer could cost between $5000 and $50,000 or more. That’s the reality.
What else do you need to know about criminal defense fees? Here are the basics.
Most good criminal defense lawyers charge flat fees.
With a flat fee, you know the cost of the entire case up front, no matter the outcome, the length, or the procedural path the case takes. Usually 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. A few lawyers regularly offer payment plans t make their fees more manageable.
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.
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.
Which means, most good criminal defense lawyers don’t sell time. (No hourly fees or bills.)
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 and trial skills, and a lot of other skills and services they may or may not ever see in use, but are critical to the outcome of the case.
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. Clients are paying for value, for the experience, skill, and knowledge of the lawyer.
Some final 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. If the lawyer makes his living off of volume, you can’t be sure you are getting the attention and care that your case requires, and that you deserve.
Second: Price shopping among many lawyers isn’t usually helpful to you. Look for a lawyer you connect with, who listens to you and takes the time to answer your questions. Yes, ask about cost, that’s important. But, 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 without hearing about the facts of the case, your goals, and your circumstances. It takes a 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 court or jurisdiction where the cases are brought may be very different. The fee in the more complex case could be several times the cost of the simpler case.
Costs and Expenses beyond the lawyer’s fee.
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.
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, get a job, get or keep a professional license, attend your child’s school events, or to do any of a myriad of other important things, can be destroyed. Generally, a criminal conviction can stay on your record for life.
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.