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The United States Constitution guarantees legal representation in any criminal prosecution. This constitutional right provides a government-appointed attorney, commonly called a public defender, in the event the defendant cannot afford to hire a defense attorney. However, public defenders are chronically overworked and understaffed, with excessive caseloads. If you face criminal charges, hiring a criminal defense lawyer should shoot straight to the top of your to do list. But, what will it cost you? This varies widely based on a number of factors, such as the attorney's experience, hourly versus flat rate fees, court costs, and the type of charges you face.
Do I Need an Attorney?
Short answer: Yes, if you face criminal charges, you need an attorney. Even if you face minor charges, a consultation helps you understand the charges filed against you and next steps such as defense, potential plea bargains, and what happens if you are convicted. If you face more serious charges, there is no questioning the value of a competent criminal defense attorney preparing your case for trial or helping to negotiate a plea bargain.
Common Criminal Defense Costs
With so many variables, estimating common costs to hire a criminal defense lawyer is impossible. Expect to pay the attorney's fee, which is either an hourly rate or a flat fee. This amount varies depending on how complicated your case is and whether you go to trial (going to trial significantly raises all of your costs).
In addition to your attorney's fees, you face numerous legal costs. These include administrative tasks such as copies and faxes, as well as court fees and expert witness testimony. When interviewing potential attorneys, ask for a comprehensive list of the legal costs you should expect, as well as the fees you'll owe. For example, reimbursing the time of expert witnesses typically costs several thousand dollars.
Hourly Fee Attorneys
Expect to pay a criminal defense attorney between $100 and $300 per hour, with higher rates charged by larger firms. Some smaller firms also charge higher rates due to choosing to represent fewer clients. Theoretically, this means your attorney has more time to devote to your case. An experienced criminal defense attorney can provide a solid estimate of how many hours your case will require, giving you a good idea of what to expect. You typically pay a retainer (usually nonrefundable) that covers a certain number of hours of your attorney's time. As funds in the retainer are depleted, you make payments.
The advantage of an hourly rate is that, if the case concludes quickly, you typically pay less than you would for a flat rate attorney. However, the disadvantage is how quickly hourly rates accumulate, especially if the case becomes more complicated. Most hourly attorneys charge in increments of time, such as 10 minutes, billing in this manner for each task performed on your behalf.
Flat Fee Attorneys
Some lawyers charge a fixed rate, which varies by case. This fee remains the same regardless of the number of hours your case requires (though it typically includes provisions for a higher fee in the event your case goes to trial). Flat fee attorneys also typically require a retainer, with the difference being the retainer amount is a percentage of the entire fee. From there, you typically make scheduled payments until the entire amount is paid.
Typically, flat fee attorneys charge one rate for services performed before charges are filed in court, another rate for services performed leading up to the preliminary hearing, and a third fee for going to trial. The main advantage of flat fees is knowing exactly what you're required to pay for your defense. A possible disadvantage is feeling taken advantage of if the attorney handles your case quickly. Do not be afraid to ask the attorney to explain all of these costs during your consultation.
Schedule a Free Consultation
If you face criminal charges, schedule a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Your time is limited, so come prepared with a list of questions as well as paper and pen to record the attorney's answers. You'll want to refer to your notes later when making your decision. In addition to costs and fees, you want an idea of how the attorney would argue your case, so make sure to bring all relevant documents with you. Finally, research the attorney ahead of time; a quick review of your area's State Bar Association website reveals such details as specialties, disciplines, and educational background.