How Much Will a Criminal Defense Lawyer Cost?

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What Will It Cost to Hire a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

Facing criminal prosecution can be one of the most intimidating situations in life since a person’s freedom is ultimately on the line. The Constitution guarantees a right to counsel in criminal prosecutions. When you cannot afford an attorney, you will be appointed to one at the government’s expense.

If you can afford counsel, then you will be required to retain a lawyer or proceed on your own. So, the overall cost of a lawyer will likely depend on your income as well as the seriousness and complexity of the case.

What Factors Cause Criminal Defense Costs to Vary?

As mentioned above, the biggest determination in what a criminal defense will cost is the income of the client and the complexity of the case. Below is a general break down of a few of the more common costs associated with criminal defense:

1) Income – This is not to say that a defense will cost a wealthier person more than it will someone who is middle class, but simply to imply that there is a cut off in every jurisdiction to determine whether a defendant is indigent. For example, the judge may ask a series of questions at arraignment, including questions about income. If a person qualifies, the judge will appoint the public defender at the government’s expense. If the judge does not appoint the public defender, that person will be required to hire their own lawyer. The income factor acts more as a floor, meaning after a minimum amount of income is exceeded, the criminal defense process will cost something.

2) Investigation and Experts – An expert witness or thorough investigation may be required, depending on the seriousness or complexity of the case. For example, death penalty trials are done in two phases, the guilt phase and the penalty phase. The second phase heavily relies on investigation into the defendant’s social history and testimony by mitigation experts, explaining why a person may have done what they did with the hopes of convincing the jury not to impose death. While the bifurcated trial is unique to death penalty cases, it is helpful in illustrating how experts and investigators can be helpful for any defense and are outright necessary for serious offenses.

By way of other examples, it is not uncommon for a defense lawyer to hire an expert in chemical testing to contest or explain the results of a BAC analysis in a DUI trial, or for a gang expert to be called in to help refute a gang enhancement on the defendant.

3) Attorney’s Fees – A person who actually did something wrong and feels they should just plead guilty may cringe at paying a lawyer. However, only a lawyer can thoroughly read and understand the charges, and consider any defenses. Regardless of the “wrongdoing” that a person may feel guilty about, it may not be what the prosecution is charging them with.

For example, let’s say a person is caught leaving a jewelry store with a $100 necklace. The shop owner, furious over the incident, tells the police it was a $1,000 necklace. The difference between the values is the difference between petty theft and grand theft, which means the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. Moreover, a different variation may be the person was wearing an expensive watch that was just given to them, and the police mistakenly inventory it as evidence of the crime.

While a person may have the right to proceed in their own defense, even experienced criminal lawyers will admit to not wanting to defend themselves. This is largely because the risks do not justify a benefit of saving some money.

What Goes into Determining a Lawyer's Fees?

With criminal defense lawyers, their level of expertise, as well as the seriousness of the offense and complexity of the case will be the biggest factors in determining how much the fee will be.

Criminal defense lawyers generally either bill through a flat fee or by the hour. If a lawyer charges a flat fee, and the charge is a misdemeanor, expect to pay anywhere between $1,000-$3,000. If there is a possibility of trial, expect to pay between $3,000-$5,000. If the charge is a felony, and the lawyer believes they may be able to receive a favorable settlement, the flat fee may range anywhere from $3,000-$6,000. However, if a felony trial seems inevitable, a flat fee ranging between $5,000-$8,000 is not uncommon. For murder or other charges where life in prison is possible, if a lawyer works on a flat fee, expect to pay upwards of $10,000.

With an hourly fee, it is not uncommon for legal bills to quickly get beyond the $10,000 range.

Why Would Lawyers Charge an Hourly Fee?

A lawyer may opt to bill hourly if they are well known or particularly renown for their abilities. Additionally, where multiple charges are likely or particularly difficult defenses will be needed and a flat fee is difficult to calculate, a lawyer will likely bill hourly. Hourly rates will vary greatly, depending on the relative ability of the lawyer. Expect to pay $150-$700 an hour for a criminal defense lawyer’s time. With an hourly fee structure, it is not uncommon for legal bills to get into the $10,000 - $15,000 range quickly.

A lawyer who works on an hourly rate may also require the payment of a retainer. This retainer will cover a certain amount of that lawyer’s time. After the retainer is expended, a standard - or potentially discounted - hourly rate will apply.

Is One Fee Structure Better than Another?

Ultimately, the best billing structure is the one that works for the client. Criminal defense lawyers understand how stressful of a time this is, and try to make the financial aspects as painless as possible. Still, it is always best to know what you are paying for.

Understanding how billing generally works is the first step to starting a discussion with your lawyer about their billing structure. Don’t be afraid to ask why the charge the way they do and how they plan on using their time to ensure your freedom.

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Last Modified: 08-11-2014 12:43 PM PDT

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