How much do criminal defense lawyers charge?
Question: How much should I spend on a lawyer? Do they charge flat or hourly fees? How much is fair and reasonable?
Fees Charged By Criminal Defense Attorneys
One thing is for sure when someone is looking around for a criminal defense lawyer and interviewing several potential attorneys, the amount of the potential legal fees is likely to fluctuate widely. The ways that attorneys charge fees can vary significantly between attorneys.
Different Cases, Difference Clients, Different Fees
A criminal case, whether felony or misdemeanor, can be broken down into several parts. Depending on how specific an attorney wants to be, the parts can be very general or very specific. For example, a felony has the following parts:
(b) district court proceedings,
(c) circuit court proceedings,
(d) trial preparation, and
An appeal can potentially be another phase, as well. Another attorney may break a felony case down in a fee agreement into even more specific parts including:
(b) district court arraignment,
(c) pre-exam conference,
(d) preliminary examination,
(e) district court motions,
(f) arraignment on the information in circuit court,
(g) pretrial conferences,
(h) motions in circuit court,
(i) evidentiary hearings,
(j) scheduling or docket conferences,
(k) trial preparation,
(l) bench trial,
(m) jury trial, and
There are a multitude of ways that attorneys can charge legal fees under the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct. For example, an attorney can charge (1) one flat fee for an entire case, (2) a flat fee for each stage of a case, (3) an hourly fee, (4) a flat, nonrefundable fee, (5) a flat, nonrefundable engagement fee with an hourly component, etc…. There are so many options that a person, under the stress of a recent criminal allegation or charge, can become very confused.
The Fee Structure Should Take Into Consideration What is Best for the Client
Depending on a particular person’s situation and financial circumstances, different fee arrangements may be appropriate for different situations.
Generally, there are a couple of fee structures that fit most situations best. For example, on a pre-charge basis, if you hire an attorney to work on a case to try to avoid criminal charges, reduce potential criminal charges or to negotiate a surrender and bond before an arrest, and upfront flat fee with hourly competent may be the best option. The way this would potentially work would be that a flat fee would be paid and would cover legal fees up to a certain number of hours. If things get complicated and take more time than maybe first anticipated, the legal fees would switch to an hourly basis. If a potential client has limited financial resources, he or she may prefer that the attorney simply works on a flat fee that covers them no matter how much time goes into the case. With this type of fee structure, the client is assured that they will have full legal representation throughout the process and will not fear getting into a situation where additional legal fees become due, and they cannot afford to pay the attorney.
Flat Fees Per Hearing Can Spiral Out of Control
If there is an actual charge, felony, or misdemeanor, a legal fee structure that can quickly get out of control is the one referenced above, which calls for a charge for each type of hearing. When an attorney charges for each individual hearing as in the example, the fees can get out of control because many hearings are adjourned and repeated. For example, there can be 4 or 5 or even more pre-trials in one case. If the client is paying a separate fee for each hearing, the fees can spiral out of control. Although many lawyers are honest and will not take advantage of a client, the fact remains that some attorneys, like some people in every profession, will take advantage when given the opportunity. This type of fee structure is too lose and provides too much incentive for some attorneys to resist scheduling a multitude of unnecessary hearings.
Modified Flat Fee – Usually Best For the Client
The fee structure that tends to work best in most cases is the fee structure that charges a flat fee per stage of the case.
The example above that identified this structure was the one where the Fee Agreement breaks the representation down and separates the fees for the following portions of the case:
(b) district court proceedings,
(c) circuit court proceedings,
(d) trial preparation, and
With this structure, it doesn’t matter how long a case is at a particular stage, the fee does not fluctuate, and the client knows in advance their financial exposure. Over the past almost two decades that I’ve been practicing criminal defense law, I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of clients have been most comfortable with this fee structure (both at the onset of legal representation and at the conclusion of the case and upon reflection). One exception to this general rule is for clients who only want to hire a criminal defense attorney on a pre-charge basis. Under these circumstances, there is sometimes no way to predict how much time may go into a pre-charge situation. In cases where there is no way to predict the investment of time into a case, the best option may be the smaller flat fee upfront with an hourly component that kicks in if the legal time exceeds a preset number of hours.
Hourly Fees – Rare for State Felony and Misdemeanor Cases
Vary few retained criminal defense attorneys charge simply by the hour in State Cases. This practice is common with federal criminal cases, civil attorneys, business attorneys, and divorce lawyers but rarely with criminal defense lawyers. Coincidentally, I’ve found that most criminal defense clients in state cases are very uncomfortable with an hourly fee arrangement in a criminal case. Reasons that clients have shared with me as to why they would not hire a criminal defense lawyer on an hourly basis is that the time that can go into a criminal case can be extensive and tough to predict; hence, legal fees can just keep accumulating and increase to an unsustainable level. Being charged with a criminal case is stressful enough without having to worry about the legal fees getting to a level that cannot be afforded. The attorney then asks the court to allow them to withdraw from the case, leaving the client in a position of having to ask for a court-appointed lawyer (a situation that many people would find unacceptable).
Criminal Defense Attorney vs. General Practice Attorney
Often you see retained lawyers that charge by the hour on state cases are really not criminal defense specialists and are more likely general practice lawyers. In my opinion, if you are charged with a state felony or misdemeanor criminal offense, you want a lawyer who exclusively handles criminal cases. Think of this analogy, if you need heart surgery, are you going to seek treatment from a brain surgeon? I highly doubt that would be your preference. Of course, you would want to see a heart surgeon. Both are doctors, but the heart surgeon is in the best position to provide specialized care and have the most skill and knowledge relative to the intricacies of the heart.
Similarly, the criminal defense lawyer is much more likely to know the intricacies of a criminal defense case and know how to handle the defense of the matter in the most effective way possible. The sections of the Michigan Court Rules that apply to criminal cases and criminal appeals are different than the rules for civil cases. Furthermore, there are tried and true techniques that are most effective in criminal cases that a general practice lawyer would not likely be proficient in these specialized skills. Finally, an experienced successful criminal defense attorney likely spent years developing relationships with criminal docket judges, prosecutors, and court staff that will help them navigate the complex waters of criminal defense work, and a general practice lawyer would likely be able to do so with as much competence.
Attorney Fees Must Be Ethical, and Agreements Should be in Writing
As it relates to the setting up of the structure of legal fees and the amount that a lawyer can charge for legal fees, the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct provide general guidelines that lawyers must follow.
Although getting a Fee Agreement in writing may not be ethically required, I would never hire a lawyer without a written contract, and I would be very dubious of any lawyer who does not offer a written, specific fee agreement. The contract should be in writing for everyone’s protection.
The Rules of Professional Conduct
Michigan Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 governs attorney fees and states as follows:
(a) A lawyer shall not enter into an agreement for, charge, or collect an
illegal or clearly excessive fee. A fee is clearly excessive when, after a review of the facts, a lawyer of ordinary prudence would be left with a definite and firm conviction that the fee is in excess of a reasonable fee. The factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of a fee include the following:
(1) the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;
(2) the likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer;
(3) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services;
(4) the amount involved and the results obtained;
(5) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances;
(6) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client;
(7) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and
(8) whether the fee is fixed or contingent.
(b) When the lawyer has not regularly represented the client, the basis or rate of the fee shall be communicated to the client, preferably in writing, before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.
(c) A fee may be contingent on the outcome of the matter for which the service is rendered, except in a matter in which a contingent fee is prohibited by paragraph (d) or by other law. A contingent-fee agreement shall be in writing and shall state the method by which the fee is to be determined. Upon conclusion of a contingent-fee matter, the lawyer shall provide the client with a written statement of the outcome of the matter and, if there is a recovery, show the remittance to the client and the method of its determination. See also MCR 8.121 for additional requirements applicable to some contingent-fee agreements.
(d) A lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge, or collect:
(1) any fee in a domestic relations matter, the payment or amount of which is contingent upon the securing of a divorce or upon the amount of alimony or support, or property settlement in lieu thereof, the lawyer’s success, results obtained, value added, or any factor to be applied that leaves the client unable to discern the basis or rate of the fee or the method by which the fee is to be determined, or
(2) a contingent fee for representing a defendant in a criminal case.
(e) A division of a fee between lawyers who are not in the same firm may be made only if:
(1) the client is advised of and does not object to the participation of all the lawyers involved; and
(2) the total fee is reasonable.
You Get What You Pay For – A Great Lawyer Can Be Expected to Achieve a Better Result
Based on these guidelines, many factors get weighed to determine if a fee is reasonable, and the fee will likely vary widely based upon the type of attorney under consideration by a potential client. Lawyers who deal in volume, court-appointed cases, or who tend to plead clients without putting up a fight, tend to charge much smaller fees than lawyers who are known to be successful, thorough, and really put up a fight for their client to achieve the best possible result. Unfortunately, the rule that applies to most things in life also applies to lawyers, meaning that you tend to get what you pay for.
Generally, the principle of “you get what you pay for” means that the quality of representation is commensurate with how much a lawyer charges; however, this is not always the case, and the client must be an informed consumer.
Lawyers who charge the most significant fees may not be able to provide a level of service that would justify their fees for many cases when other, well-known, respected lawyers may handle the case for a lesser price. Gouging does happen, and you should research a lawyer to ensure he is as good as his fee would indicate. Google is an excellent place to research a prospective attorney’s reputation. Furthermore, services such as Avvo, SuperLawyers, and Martindale Hubbell are great places to double-check a lawyer’s qualifications.
Consider lawyers who charge bargain-basement fees with extreme caution and wariness. There is a reason that they are charging the lowest fees, and it probably is not that they are charitable and benevolent. It more likely means they are desperate for work or practice a quantity over quality type practice. You will want a skilled lawyer to represent you on criminal charges. Also, you will want to make sure she or he has an excellent reputation, is highly regarded by prior clients, and someone determined to put as much time and energy into a case as necessary to achieve the best possible result.
An Unusually High or Low Fee Can Be a Warning Sign
The bottom line is that if you are going to hire a lawyer, spending a decent but fair amount of money on a good attorney is a necessary evil. There can be no doubt that in a criminal case a defense attorney who is genuinely willing to fight for a client, who is highly skilled in their profession, and who truly cares about his or her client and the result in the case is invaluable.
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