Understanding Retainers vs. Flat fees
If you are arrested, you would want the best possible representation regardless of the cost right? While most people would say yes, too many people say no. I always know that this isn’t going to work out when the first question out of the prospective client’s mouth is “how much do your charge for….”. Anyone that focused on money is probably not a good fit for our firm. We are by now means the most expensive firm out there; not even close. However, we are also not the cheapest; not even close either. I think our total fees are average and provide a good value for what you get.
In criminal cases, fees can either be flat or hourly. A flat fee is attractive to many clients because they have certainty in what they will be paying. However, what they don’t realize is that someone is going to get the short end of the stick here. Either the client will wind up paying for time they didn’t get if the case ends quickly or the attorney will wind up doing more work than anticipated. It is impossible to predict every single twist and turn that a case may take no matter how many cases you do. Its what makes this job fun and exciting. Every single day is 100% different than the last. Do you honestly think your attorney is going to put the time into your case when the case takes an unexpected turn that requires more work than originally thought? I highly doubt it. In fact, most people that call me looking to fire their old lawyers often pay their lawyers on a flat fee and often, not enough. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.
The only thing lawyers have to sell is time and there is only so much of it to sell. Thus, if your lawyer expected your case to take a total of 30 hours and it take 100, that lawyer is losing a lot of money! Thus, its not wonder that he/she is not preparing for trial, doing research, returning your phone calls, etc. They would go out of business if they kept doing all of that. Thus, there is a big rush to plea everyone out and move on to the next case. Likewise, if the attorney set a fee based upon an expected 30 hours worth of work but only puts in 10, that’s a huge profit margin! As you can see, a flat fee encourages your attorney to put in the least amount of time possible. Is that what you want for your case?
The alternative to a flat fee is hourly billing. With an hourly cases, the client pays a retainer. The retainer is a credit that you have with the firm and is often not an estimate of any kind. The lawyers in the firm and the office staff will keep track of their time including phone calls, letters, court time, research, etc. Some firms charge travel time but my firm never does. Your case could cost more or less than the retainer but it will often cost more, especially if the case goes to trial. Since there is no cap on how much your legal bills may be, some clients get worried that the sky is the limit. In general, this is a valid concern. However, there are three things that wind up capping or controlling the final cost: the ability to pay, the firm’s reputation and periodic invoices.
If your funds are very limited, you have to let your attorney know what type of budget that you are working with. There is a perception that the rich get off and the poor go to prison. Why do you think that is true? I often say that many people are in prison because they couldn’t afford to stay out. For better or for worse, many people sitting in prison would not be there if they had the right attorney helping them. Unfortunately, its hard for some people to really understand how different one lawyer is from another. Of course, just because a lawyer is expensive doesn’t mean they are good. Expensive lawyers lose cases too.
As I said before, you get what you pay for and you should get what you pay for. You should not get ripped off. If the attorney starts to rip you off, you can fire that firm and they will have a bad reputation with you. As I always say, no matter how much your case winds up costing, it will not be worth sacrificing my firm’s reputation. You can track you attorney’s billing practices by requesting an itemized invoice. They should be sent to you on a periodic basis anyway. You should keep in mind that your first invoice may not be indicative of how the rest of the case will go. Criminal defense cases are often like a roller coaster where there is a lot of work to do in the beginning, follow by a lull, followed by more work, another lull, etc. Thus, its not the amount of the first invoice that should be your concern but what you are actually being billed for.
I make it a point that all of our billing is 100% accurate. We also bill be tenths of an hour which is lower than the accepted practice of billing by quarter hours. The difference: a 3 minute phone call will cost you $20 vs. $50 based upon a $200 hourly rate. See how expensive that case can get in a hurry with a quarter hour billing standard?