A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Are Criminal Defense Lawyers Really Worth?

A lively discussion took place in the comments section of the post below regarding fees in criminal cases.

Seems an anonymous police officer takes some pity on defendants he arrests, because they will later encounter bankrupting criminal defense lawyers who are not sensitive to the fact that "most" people cannot afford to hire them.

I have always believed that the demise of respect for lawyers has had much to do with the fact that we charge "a lot" of money for our services. There is the old notion that a "rich" person is someone who makes $1 more than you. If that's true, then someone who makes thousands more than you, is certainly the devil.

There is no sense trying to discredit the notion that those who can afford to hire expensive lawyers get better justice. Public defenders that win impossible cases are not written about as much as when the "marquis" lawyer wins a case. Sure, a defendant with money can afford to hire experts, investigators, and lawyers who don't have volume practices and can afford to put in more time to a case. But it's not always the case that the defendant with the most money, always wins.

The question in the title of this post is one that clients don't like to answer. It's always OK when a personal injury lawyer writes a letter, makes a couple phone calls, and resolves a case for $100,000, taking $30,000 for himself. It's OK because the money doesn't come from the client, technically.

But when a client who gets arrested and is told he will be fired if he is convicted, is asked to pay five, ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred thousand dollars to defend the case - it is then that the criminal defense lawyer is seen as unsympathetic. Don't we "understand?"

Truth be told, there are clients who understand that for the most part they have one shot to defend their case. There are those same clients who understand that a good lawyer costs good money, and that private lawyers are not public defenders. We don't work for free, and we don't have the luxury to tell our staff, landlord, investigators, mortgage companies, grocery stores, court reporters, or anyone else we pay bills to, that we are taking a break from charging fees because certain people believe we should be more sensitive to the fact they were arrested.

No one has an obligation to hire any attorney, and no attorney has an obligation to charge what the client can afford. If it's not worth it to you to hire the lawyer you are talking with, find someone else. My anonymous officer friend says $6,000 is a lot of money for a DUI case. To someone making $30,000 a year, it may be. To someone making $250,000, it may be pocket money. To someone fearing losing their job and wanting to do whatever they need to do to defend the case in a proper fashion, it may be a "bitter pill," that must be swallowed.

It always amazes me when I speak to a client about their life. I will hear them tell me about their job, their obligations, their insistence that they "can't" go to jail. It appears that they are serious about representation, until they hear the fee. And it's not just my fee. Often I will talk to a client who tells me they came to see me after being quoted an "outrageous" fee from another lawyer. When I hear the fee, I'm in shock - not at the fee, but at the low number.

My anonymous officer friend talks about setting up a system like health insurance. A client pays a small co-pay, I guess, and the rest is paid by the insurance company. Sounds good, just find me an insurance company that wants to bankroll criminal defense fees, and a lawyer that wants to take the fees that the insurance company will pay.

I spent 20 years in school. I've been practicing 15 years. I did my work as a public defender, and I still, to this day take court appointed cases in federal court, and when I see a need, help a client out.

But this is my profession. This is how I feed my family. If you can't afford me, pick up the yellow pages, go to Google. You'll find "reasonable fees," and "affordable payment plans" all over the place.

This is America, you are free to hire the lawyer of your choice.

Hopefully it's someone who values your case, as much, or more, than you do.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.


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  1. Very well stated. The same is true in civil practice (which is what our office practices mostly). We too get the sob stories, the requests for "deals" and subtle digs at how "expensive" our fees are. This is the reason why, if the client can't fund our retainer and understand that the case will likely cost 2-3 times that number, we usually do not take the case.

  2. To some extent I agree with the police officer.

    While I believe most people would be willing to swallow a $6,000 pill for a "top rate" DUI attorney, they would only be willing to do so if they knew it was worth it.

    But the problem is that for to long, to many second rate attorneys have been advertising themselves as "top rate" DUI attorneys (sex crimes, drug trafficking, violent crimes, etc. attorneys - you name it).

    And absent a "consumer lawyer reports" magazine for the common person; the common person does not know and will likely not find out until it is to late if the attorney they hire is "top rate" or "second rate."

    And because of this all to common problem of second rate attorneys charging first rate prices, a large percentage of consumers shell out good money and get little value.

  3. $6,000 for a top-rate dui lawyer is a good deal in Palm Beach county. That is on the low-end of fees for the best DUI lawyers here. You get what you pay for.

    I know very few second-rate lawyers that charge high fees. Most of them know they are not worth the money and don't charge it. Those are the guys that advertise affordable payment plans. There's a reason they are cheap.

    Criminal defense lawyers are really worth:

    1. What the lawyer thinks he is worth.
    2. What the market will bear.

    The first obstacle to charging higher fees is the lawyer himself. You have to know, believe and earn the money you charge.

    Next, people with $ have to know who you are. Then it's a matter of them seeing the value in hiring you and knowing you are worth it.


  4. Anonymous8:46 PM

    I would reiterate that you DO deserve a good living, same as does a heart surgeon or medical doctor. The basic problem remains that if you go to a physician with cancer (i.e. not a minor traffic ticket, but real charges that will require quality lawyering) and the physician demands that you pay the full treatment cost upfront (i.e. no health insurance coverage, straight cash), you get the dubious choice between medically induced bankruptcy or hoping the cancer goes away.

    6000$ may not sound like much to an executive. If I arrest a low wage worker barely scraping by on their third OVI for drunk driving, it doesn't matter what the court case outcome will be for them. The legal costs will do the same damage even if they get a full 100% acquital. There are times I do not charge people for crimes if their fiscal situation looks bleak and another acceptable method is possible. I have told people to either make restitution by a certain date for low value theft cases or I will charge them at a later date, for instance, for that very reason.

    But there are some cases (felony charges with bodily harm where they definitely did it, with the crime on video, good witnesses, good forensics and the like) where I charge them regardless of their finances. This is with the full realization that their case outcome will to a large degree hinge on how much money (which they may or may not have) they can expend.

    Anyway, thanks for hosting an informative discussion.

  5. Anonymous10:43 PM

    One additional point. Companies DO get legal insurance. Malpractice insurance policies for some professions stipulates that if they pay their premiums and get sued they DON'T shell out full legal fees. The insurance does, in a similar way to a health insurer paying for your catastrophic illness or injury.

    I have a similar arrangement via the FOP labor contract where if I have a work related legal issue, the FOP may cover the attorney costs.

    Trying to get something like that for a guy who has just stolen his 3rd car and on his 23rd arrest may be a bit more problematic, as you correctly point out.