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If Most Lawyers Work on Contingency Fees, Why is My Criminal Defense Lawyer Asking to be Paid?

Television and radio advertising tag lines have caused big problems for us in the criminal defense business for years. "If we don't win your case, you don't owe us a dime," say the paid spokespersons on these personal injury and medical malpractice firm broadcast commercials. As a result of having heard the only memorable part of most of these commercials (the tag), at least once per week my office is contacted by a criminal defendant (or a relative or friend of a criminal defendant) who essentially demands that I give a top-notch representation of their matter, that I spare no expense in doing it the way they have "seen it on TV," and that they not be required to pay me one single red cent unless and until I have secured their freedom from the criminal prosecution that resulted from their having obviously committed some truly heinous crime. They sometimes even get indignant when I try to explain to them that the commercials they have seen a) are not for my firm, b) are not criminal defense law firms, and c) don't really represent firms that intend to do a mountain of work for no compensation.

Once we get through the part of the conversation where they insist that I give them that deal and I assure them (for the umpteenth time that I will not), then we get to what I actually expect to be paid before (and, if absolutely necessary, during) the representation of this defendant on this matter. After the shock of a number that generally ends in the words “thousand dollars," they then want a guarantee that I will win their case. When I tell them that I am not ethically permitted to give them a guarantee of anything I cannot fully control, they ask why they would ever pay me _____________ thousand dollars for a case with no guaranteed outcome. I answer because your choices are either to pay me thousands, pay my colleague thousands, or qualify for court-appointed counsel. And that really is all there is to it.

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