Written by attorney Steven Everett Savage

Why on earth is my private criminal defense attorney so expensive???

One of the primary concerns my prospective clients have when considering having my firm represent them in their criminal cases is cost. The size of my legal fee, plus any other anticipated fixed fees and other expenditures consumes the vast majority if the early meetings and telephone calls I have with prospects. And while some aggressive negotiating of my fee is to be expected (as many people are not in a position not to have to try to bargain as much as they can), I am often mystified by how small a percentage of my ask is reflected their counteroffers, sometimes as little as 10 percent. Interestingly, they generally tend to only try to whittle down my fee. The other expenditures, i.e., the court reporter's fee for transcripts,;the expert's fees for evaluating the case, authoring a report, and then testifying about her findings; and the cost of the polygrapher and investigators they seem resigned to paying without question.

It occurs to me, after years of observing these trends, that lay persons have a hard time reconciling our high fees with the apparent effortlessness with which we perform the conspicuous parts of our work. When we show up in court, on their behalf, and argue on the record about some relevant and strategically important, but obscure point of law, seemingly without notes or much effort, they must assume that three years of law school (after four years of college and, in many cases, graduate school) has endowed us with all the legal knowledge we will ever need to know. And when we walk up to the prosecutor (or DA or SA or CA or DAG or AUSA) and hand him or her a motion, complete with a brief of supporting law,apparently almost as an afterthought, we must keep motions like that in our briefcases so they can be deployed at a moments notice--and when we run low, we just print out some more and stick them in the bag.

Most of the lawyers I know, particularly those in the criminal defense field, spend hours getting ready for each court appearance. Not only do we need to be intimately familiar with the facts of the case (to an even greater extent than does the defendant), but we have to ensure that we have performed every responsibility given to us by the law, the judge, or the client, and that we can deliver whatever we are supposed to commensurate with the deadlines in the case. And we do all of this while balancing a load of other cases that can run from just a few to several dozen active cases. I personally maintain no more than 15 active major felony cases because I know my limits.

The apparent presumption that we are charlatans selling snake oil (which assumption must give rise to the ridiculous counteroffers we are sometimes faced with and always must reject) has to yield and be replaced by the knowledge that the average felony case which doesn't go to trial can easily consume more than 100 hours of attorney time outside of the courtroom. And those cases which go to trial can easily double or triple that time in trial preparation alone. Add the actual in-court trial time, and the total number could double again. Given the huge burden that carrying a case through the system, and possibly through to a verdict, places on the shoulders of a criminal defense lawyer, and given the additional responsibilities that come with the practice area (i.e., advising clients about the social aspects of the case, dealing with billing issues, handling nonclient relatives and friends who feel the need to "supervise" the lawyer and constantly check for updates, and getting everyone to court who needs to be in court at the time he or she is needed or required to be there, among other things), it can be disheartening when clients lose sight of the vast amount of work that must be done before, during, and after all court appearances, and before, during, and after all meetings and telephone calls, and before, during, and after the trial or plea.

I earn my fee and I do not ask a penny more than I beleive my work is worth. Most crimnal defense attorneys spend a great deal of time and effort creating a fair pricing structure which does not leave their clients worse off and doesn't seek to trade on the clients' disadvantage. Please be respectful when negotiating. Ask your attorney for his or her best price and, if it is more than you are willing or able to pay, perhaps moving on to the next prospect is the best idea.

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