The Constitution guarantees a right to counsel in criminal prosecutions. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for you. If the court decides based on your income and assets that you can afford an attorney, you may either hire a private attorney or represent yourself.

What Factors Cause Criminal Defense Costs to Vary?

There are several factors that can affect the overall costs of a criminal case:

  • Defendant’s Income – The defendant’s income determines if he or she is eligible for a court appointed attorney. Each state has different qualifications to determine if someone can afford to hire their own attorney. If an individual qualifies, the court will appoint a public defender paid for by the government.
  • Investigation and Experts – Many criminal cases have complex issues that can require investigators and/or expert witnesses. For example, a defense attorney might hire an expert in chemical testing to contest or explain the results of a BAC analysis in a DUI trial, or a psychologist if the defendant wishes to raise the defense of legal insanity. Investigators and expert require on average a retainer of $2,000 and can charge over $300/hr.
  • Attorney’s Fees – Attorney’s fees will vary according to several factors. Some of the more important factors affecting an attorney’s rate include:
    • The skill of the attorney;
    • The experience of the attorney;
    • The seriousness of the offense;
    • The complexity of the legal issues in the case;
    • Whether the case goes to trial; and
    • Whether the attorney charges a flat fee or by the hour.

How Much Will it Cost if the Lawyer Charges a Flat Fee?

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. 

Why Would Lawyers Charge an Hourly Fee?

Accomplished and well-known attorneys often choose to charge clients by the hour instead of according to a flat rate. In addition, if a case is complex enough that an appropriate flat rate is difficult to calculate (e.g. there are multiple charges against the defendant), the attorney may also decide to charge by the hour. 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.

Do I Need an Attorney to Represent Me?

Even if you believe you have committed a crime and wish to plead guilty, it is extremely important to consult an experienced attorney before responding to any criminal prosecution. At the very minimum, a skilled attorney can ensure that the charges against you are appropriate given the facts of the case and advocate on your behalf to receive the lowest possible penalty. For example, 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 (misdemeanor)and grand theft (felony). 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. 

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. If you are looking for a skilled attorney to help protect you from criminal prosecution, contact a skilled criminal defense lawyer today.