If you have financial constraints, you may be concerned about whether you can pay for a private lawyer to handle your case. Public defenders are always an option, since you have a constitutional right to an attorney, but a private lawyer often can provide a higher level of service. The cost of an attorney may depend on the geographic location and the type of charge that you are facing. Some attorneys charge higher rates for felony charges than for misdemeanors, since these cases tend to involve more complexities and require more effort. An attorney with more experience may charge more than a younger attorney, although the cost may even out if the younger attorney takes more time to handle the case.
You can look up information on median and average fees in your area, but you should be aware that there is no set fee for a criminal case. If your case involves several court appearances or meetings with prosecutors, you probably will pay more than if the case ends after a single appearance or with an efficient plea bargain. Generally, an attorney will request to have their fees paid in advance, at least in part.
Billing Structures for Criminal Lawyers
There are two main fee arrangements: hourly fees and case (fixed) fees. An hourly fee means that the client pays the lawyer for the time that they spend on the case. This can work in the client’s favor if the case ends efficiently, but the fees can pile up if the case gets complicated. Some observers worry that attorneys who charge on an hourly basis may be tempted to pile up fees by making the case more complicated than necessary. However, you can ask an attorney whom you are considering for an estimate of how much time they expect the case to require.
Hourly vs. Case (Fixed) Fees
Hourly fees = the client pays according to the time that the lawyer spends on the case
Case (fixed) fees = the client pays a flat fee regardless of the amount of time that the lawyer spends
By contrast, a case fee arrangement means that the attorney agrees to handle the case for a certain price. This fee remains in effect regardless of the amount of time that the attorney spends on it. A defendant often will appreciate the certainty of knowing how much they need to pay for representation. In some cases that are quickly resolved, however, the defendant may worry that they have paid too much. An attorney may refund part of the fee if the case resolves sooner than expected, but this is not required. If the case goes to trial, the attorney may ask for an additional fee. They also may expect the client to compensate them for court costs, such as the costs of witness subpoenas and copying documents. (Attorneys who charge hourly fees also may charge these costs separately.)
A retainer is a fee that a client pays upfront to be used for attorneys’ fees. If the retainer is not exhausted by the end of the case, the remainder usually will be refunded to the client.
Regardless of the overall billing structure, a client can expect to pay a retainer fee to their attorney at the outset of the case before the attorney starts working on it. This may consist of a certain number of hours in an hourly fee arrangement, or it may consist of a percentage of the fixed fee. To show that they are meeting their obligations to the client, the attorney will send them statements to explain what they have done on the case, how much of the retainer has been spent, and (in the case of an hourly fee arrangement) how much time they have spent on the case. If the lawyer is not working for a fixed fee, they may ask the client for another payment once the retainer is close to being exhausted.