Much too often, attorney-client relationships strain – or never form – due to money. It may be that an existing client did not anticipate additional costs beyond the initial representation fee; or, a potential client may not see the value of hiring a lawyer in the first place. Regardless of the reason for concern, money is a common barrier between attorney and client. This is particularly true for criminal defense and immigration cases, where attorneys must charge a client up front as opposed to the contingency model adopted by personal injury attorneys.
Questions about legal fees are completely valid, and clients and potential clients alike should ask them. Hiring a criminal defense or immigration lawyer is an investment into your life, liberty, record and reputation, and you should feel confident that your ROI (return on investment) will justify the expense. Like hiring any other professional (a mechanic, for instance), you need to know the scope and quality of the work, whether the fee includes certain costs (parts vs. labor), when the fees are to be collected, and whether the fee is reasonable as compared to similar vendors.
To facilitate the attorney hiring decision, we have identified some of the most common questions, concerns, and misconceptions about legal fees. If you are in the market for a criminal defense or immigration attorney, below are five (5) things you should know about legal fees.
- Upfront payment is required. While the contingency format makes sense for personal injury lawyers because there is an independent source of income (i.e. insurance companies), criminal defense and immigration cases do not involve insurance payouts. The only source of income for criminal defense and immigration attorneys is the client. Naturally, running a successful criminal defense and immigration law firm comes with overhead expenses for legal assistants, offices, phones, and files, so even the most compassionate and community-oriented attorneys need to charge fees. The usual payment plan for legal fees in a criminal defense or immigration case is payment of half up front, and the balance paid in biweekly or monthly installments.
- Flat fees (instead of hourly billing) are common. As opposed to some areas of practice that require hourly billing against a large retainer, most criminal defense and immigration attorneys bill on a flat fee basis. This is generally great for clients, as attorneys’ fees are capped at a fixed amount without the danger of continued billing. Even though criminal defense and immigration attorneys do not bill hourly, they do consider the anticipated number of hours required for a case in determining a proper price quote. Attorneys may also consider their level of experience and the complexity of the case in determining the proper legal fee.
- Legal fees do not include third-party costs. While a flat fee ensures a fixed price for legal services, it does not generally include other costs. The representation fee is separate and apart from third-party costs such as court costs, court reporters, transcripts, requests for evidence, and expert witnesses. Third-party costs involve other vendors who independently charge for their services. The lawyer cannot use the representation fee to cover services outside of the law firm.
- Payment of legal fees do not guarantee a victory. Attorneys are bound by rules of ethics that prevent them from guaranteeing a particular result; but the more practical reason why legal fees can’t guarantee a victory is that lawyers are not the deciders of your case! That is the job of the judge, jury, or – in immigration cases – the immigration officer. An attorney can only commit to doing everything possible for the client. In the same way that a surgeon cannot guarantee that a surgery will go well, even the best attorney cannot guarantee a win.
- Payment of court costs do not mean your record is “clean.” As previously mentioned, court costs are third-party costs not included in the representation fee. However, it is worth discussing the effect of paying court costs on your criminal case. Contrary to popular myth, payment of court costs does not erase your criminal record. In fact, payment of fines and court costs can have the exact opposite effect; it can mean an automatic plea of guilty and a conviction on your record. Before paying court costs, consider your options and the possibility of seeking a dismissal on your case.
If someone is giving you fee information that is inconsistent with the above tips, view his or her advice with caution and seek a second opinion from an experienced attorney. It is important to secure the ideal representation, and part of that includes being knowledgeable about fees.
We will conclude with something further for potential clients to consider: The least expensive attorney can become costly in other ways, and the most expensive attorney may not necessarily be the best one. The real issue is not price, but rather value for the dollar – how much work the attorney will do for you, how well the attorney will do it, and what level of service the law firm will provide. When choosing the right lawyer for your criminal or immigration case, consider the value of your investment.