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Nov 26, 2018

How Much Does it Cost to Hire a Criminal Lawyer?

When you or someone you love has been arrested, it’s natural to feel afraid. The criminal justice system is vast and unwieldy, and it’s next to impossible to navigate it on your own. You’re likely to ask yourself why this is happening, what does the future hold and – eventually – “How much does it cost to hire a criminal lawyer?”


How a Criminal Attorney Can Help

A criminal attorney can begin to help as soon as you or your loved one has been arrested, and will be by your side throughout your arduous journey. A criminal lawyer can be present to advise you during questioning, ensuring that you don’t make any self-incriminating statements. They can advocate on your behalf so that the charges are dropped or so that you can get out on bail or on your own recognizance. A criminal attorney can represent you in your initial court hearing, and can negotiate on your behalf with the prosecutor to have charges reduced or dropped. And, of course, they can argue for you if your case goes to trial. Finally, a criminal lawyer is indispensable in the sentencing process and any subsequent appeals.


Each Case is Unique

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “How much does it cost to hire a criminal lawyer?” That’s because each case is unique; the circumstances surrounding your arrest and the charges you’re facing are different than those of the next person who is arrested. For example, let’s say you are arrested for driving under the influence. Most folks know that, in California, a .08 blood alcohol content can lead to an arrest. But, if you’re underage, any level of blood alcohol can result in DUI charges. And, if you’re driving a big rig, blood alcohol content of .04 can lead to a DUI arrest.

In our DUI example, blood alcohol content is just one factor. Let’s say that you refused a blood alcohol test. That in itself could result in a fine and a one-, two-, or three-year suspension of your driver’s license, depending on how many previous offenses you’ve had. Prior offenses also impact the sentencing you receive for a DUI conviction. For example, if it’s your first offense, you can serve between 48 hours and six months in jail. You can also be ordered to pay fines of between $390 and $1,000, along with myriad penalty assessments that can make the amount you owe staggering. Finally, you’re likely to have your license suspended for six months. In some California counties – including Alameda County – you are required to have an ignition interlock device installed in your car. Essentially, this is a breathalyzer that will lock up your car’s ignition and prevent your car from starting if it detects a certain amount of alcohol. The data is sent to the court. A criminal defense lawyer, though, may be able to convince the court to reduce the penalty for a first-time DUI to informal probation and 30 hours of DUI-related classes.

Second and third DUI offenses in California have increased penalties. The second time around, you may be looking at up to a year in jail, a two-year driver’s license suspension, and another round of fines – along with a year of dealing with an ignition interlock device if you’re in Alameda or one of three other California counties. A criminal lawyer can help keep you out of jail and instead enable you to serve probation and attend classes relating to driving under the influence.

Your third DUI offense comes with a mandatory jail sentence, three years with a suspended license, and probation. In Alameda and three other counties, you’re required to have an ignition interlock device for two years.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways in which even a seemingly straightforward case can be unique. If you injured someone while you were driving, you could be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony. This type of crime is called a “wobbler.” A criminal lawyer can help to ensure that the charges “wobble” in your favor, and perhaps even arrange for a plea agreement to a lesser crime. If your DUI leads to another person’s death, you can be charged with one of three crimes, the most serious of which is second-degree murder. Alternate criminal charges are gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Having a criminal attorney by your side that can arrange for a plea agreement to a lesser charge can mean the difference between spending 15 years to life in prison – for felony second-degree murder – and a year in jail and fines – for misdemeanor negligent manslaughter.


Other Factors that Influence the Cost of a Criminal Defense Attorney

Your crime and the extenuating circumstances of your case are two factors that influence the cost of a criminal lawyer, but there are several others as well. While it’s difficult to generalize, legal representation for misdemeanor charges typically costs less than for felony charges. This makes sense because felonies generally involve a greater number of court appearances, as well as pretrial preparation, research, and negotiations. The criminal lawyer may need to use an investigator or may need to bring in expert witnesses to testify on your behalf, all of which cost money.

Your criminal history is another factor that can impact the cost of your criminal defense. If you have a significant criminal history, it can take more time and effort to mount an effective defense, to strike a plea agreement, or to argue for leniency at sentencing. For these reasons, it will likely cost more to hire a criminal defense lawyer.

Two other factors can also influence the cost of legal representation. The first is your geographic region. When compared with, say, the cost of goods and services in South Dakota, the cost of goods and services in the San Francisco Bay Area is exponentially higher. The median home cost in South Dakota is $184,700, while the median home cost in Oakland is $738,400. In other words, hiring a lawyer in the Bay Area is going to be more expensive than hiring an attorney in South Dakota.

The second factor is the experience of the attorney. A lawyer who is fresh out of law school will charge less than an attorney with decades of experience representing those who have been charged with crimes. Keep in mind, though, that the newer attorney may not have the connections and lived experience that allow a more seasoned lawyer to navigate criminal cases with ease. In other words, the higher cost of the experienced attorney is likely correlated with better outcomes for their clients. In addition, even if the hourly cost of a less experienced attorney is lower, they likely will need more time to prepare your case. At the end of the process, you may find that it takes the experienced lawyer less time and that the number of billable hours is lower – thus offsetting the differences in hourly rates.


The Ways Attorneys Bill for Their Time

If you haven’t previously hired a criminal defense attorney, the question after “How much does it cost to hire a criminal lawyer?” is likely, “When do I have to come up with the money?”

Criminal defense attorneys usually bill for their time in one of two ways: flat fees and hourly billing. In the case of flat fees, the arrangement is typically that the lawyer will charge you a certain amount for a straightforward misdemeanor or felony charge. Using our example above, the attorney may have set fee for a first-time DUI arrest with no extenuating circumstances. This can be helpful to you because you know what to expect and you can arrange your finances to accommodate your attorney fees. Many times, flat fees are for a specific set of parameters; for example, the flat fee won’t include trial representation. It’s important to understand what is and isn’t covered under the flat fee arrangement. It’s also crucial to know that, whether your case takes five hours or a hundred hours of your attorney’s time, you’re going to pay the same amount. In other words, a quick resolution of your case doesn’t result in lower fees.

For hourly billing, you’re paying for the time your attorney and others in their office (for example, paralegals, investigators, and junior attorneys) spend on your case. Many law offices bill in six-minute increments, and each person’s time is billed at a different rate. Typically, you’re also responsible for a variety of fees, such as those relating to subpoenas, copying, and court filings. Because you’re only paying for the time and resources that are actually spent representing you, hourly billing can be beneficial if your case takes little time. On the flip side, you could pay a steep legal bill if unforeseen complications arise. However, seasoned criminal defense attorneys can draw upon their experience and provide you with a ballpark estimate of the time they think it will take to represent you.

Although most attorneys bill at either a flat fee or hourly rate, there are some criminal lawyers who are willing to take a hybrid approach: billing hourly up to a certain maximum amount. In this scenario, you know what the cost ceiling is. If your case resolves quickly, you pay less than you anticipated. If it takes more time than anticipated, the attorney picks up the difference.

As for the timing of paying for your legal defense, it is typical for a criminal defense attorney to ask for a retainer. This is money that you pay before they start working on your legal defense. If they’re charging a flat fee, the attorney may want the entire fee ahead of time, or may split it into two payments. In the case of hourly representation, they may ask for an amount equal to a certain number of hours. So, if your attorney’s rate is $150 per hour, they may ask for a $3,000 retainer, which represents 20 hours.


A Skilled Attorney is Worth the Money

Sometimes after asking, ““How much does it cost to hire a criminal lawyer?”, the person’s next thought is, “I wonder if I can represent myself.” While you have the legal right to represent yourself, it’s not wise to do so. Let’s look at two scenarios. The first is that you did nothing wrong, and you believe that the facts will become clear and the charges will be dropped. Unfortunately, our criminal justice system isn’t that straightforward. Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of discretion in how the law is applied, and if you represent yourself, you may be convicted and sentenced before you’re able to figure out how the system works. The second scenario is that you did commit the crime, you are planning to plead guilty, and you are willing to accept the punishment. That’s fine, but how much of your life are you willing to sacrifice in jail or prison? How much money are you willing to fork over in fines and fees?

In each of these scenarios, a criminal defense attorney can intervene and – in most cases – generate a better outcome for you. If you’re innocent of the crime, your attorney may be able to get the charges dropped or create a compelling defense that undermines the prosecution’s case against you. Your lawyer can mount a defense that questions everything from the legality of a search to the impeccability of the chain of evidence to eyewitness accounts. If you’re guilty of a crime, your criminal defense attorney can leverage the system to give you the option of pleading guilty to a lesser crime or calling into question the rules of evidence that might lead to the charges being dropped altogether. Your attorney is your advocate, and can intervene on your behalf at many steps in the process.

Just as you don’t tinker under the hood of your car if you aren’t a mechanic, you don’t want to tinker with your freedom if you aren’t an experienced criminal defense lawyer. However you answer the question, “How much does it cost to hire a criminal lawyer?”, you can rest assured that talented legal counsel is worth every penny.

Contact us today to talk about costs associated with your specific situation.

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