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Why are some lawyers more expensive than others, and do you really get what you pay for?

“How much is this going to cost?”  Everyone who calls or comes in to my office asks this question, and I imagine they’re hoping to hear a lower fee than what other lawyers have quoted.  When someone asks me this question within the first few minutes of a call or meeting, my answer is almost always:  “it depends.”  Our conversation inevitably then heads in one of two possible directions:  “Can you give me an idea of how much?” or ” It depends on what?”

Direction 1:  “Can You Give Me An Idea Of How Much?”

Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, “can you give me an idea of how much” is code for “I’m going through my list, calling every lawyer I’ve found, so that I can hire the least expensive one.”  I often wonder if the same person needed life-saving brain surgery, would he/she call one doctor after the next to make sure that the least expensive surgeon would be opening his/her skull to perform an intricate, high-stakes procedure?  I doubt it, but for some reason, this is how criminal defense lawyers are often chosen, even when someone is facing the possibility of dying in prison.  I know that not every person can afford to hire every lawyer, but if you plan on hiring the cheapest lawyer, why not just apply for a free, court-appointed one?[1]  If you do decide to hire a lawyer, however, it’s important to make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples when looking at fees, since not all lawyers have the same qualifications and abilities.  Imagine a lawyer who has only represented clients in traffic court.  Is that the lawyer you would hire if you were charged with capital murder?  As I have stated before (click here), if you need representation in a criminal case, it’s important to first search for lawyers who are qualified to handle your specific case.  Once you have found a few qualified lawyers, the process of elimination can be based on personality, communication methods, comfort levels, the “vibe” you get from the lawyer, and of course price.  To put price ahead of a lawyer’s actual ability is incredibly dangerous and can have grave and permanent consequences.  If a lawyer agrees to represent someone charged with a felony for a few hundred bucks, this should act as a big red flag that little to no effort might be put into legal research and preparing a defense.

Direction 2:  “It Depends On What?”

You might now be asking yourself:  “What’s so different from one DWI (or marijuana/assault/etc.) case to the next that you don’t know what the fee will be based on what I’m charged with?”  Well, in a DWI case without an accident or a child passenger, if neither breath nor blood evidence was collected, the preparation and investigation of the defense could be rather straight forward.  However, once scientific evidence is added to the equation, (such as a breath or blood test) advanced scientific knowledge, additional investigation, and sometimes even expert witnesses can become mandatory to properly defend what would otherwise appear to be a simple case.  If there was a child in the car, that simple case just became a felony.  Likewise, if there was an accident, the extent of any injuries or out-of-pocket expenses to the other driver will have an impact on how the prosecutor or judge decides to handle the case.  The more complex a case is, the more hours of work are required to prepare the defense.

In any criminal case, if there is a custody battle or deportation proceeding in addition to the criminal charge, the criminal defense lawyer will need to do everything possible to prevent the criminal case from impacting these collateral matters.  Likewise, if a client has a career which requires a professional license (such as a nurse, barber, teacher, or TWIC card), avoiding the loss or suspension of that license will create additional work to properly address the client’s individual needs.  A lawyer who tells you a price while knowing nothing more than what you’re charged with is either setting a fee based on a “worst case scenario”[2], or that lawyer does not intend to address these issues.  The “worst case scenario” fee structure has no real drawbacks, aside from the possibility of artificially inflating the cost to the client.  However, the lawyer who ignores or is unaware of the collateral consequences of your criminal proceeding can set you up for a bigger headache than just a few extra days in jail.

 “But aren’t all shoplifting cases pretty much the same?”  This might appear to be the case; however, theft, possession of marijuana or other drugs, assault, prostitution, and breaking into a house or car could be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances.  Also, a person’s criminal history could make a case that usually results in a misdemeanor deferred adjudication turn into a situation where that person is instead facing twenty-five years to life in prison on a felony.

These are just a few of the reasons why it’s beneficial to spend a little time discussing the case, your expectations, and your concerns with a lawyer before jumping straight to the question of price.

Do I Really Need To Come See You In Your Office?  While a telephone conversation can be informative, a face-to-face meeting allows me to learn much more about you.  Meeting in-person is usually a more comfortable environment to discuss the case, your expectations, and any fears or concerns about the process.  Meeting in the office also ensures that we both have each other’s undivided attention, so that important information isn’t glossed over or missed entirely.  On the flip side, if you want to meet with a lawyer before hiring him/her, but he/she is unavailable to take the time to discuss your case in person, what does that say about how important, or unimportant, you will be as a client?

Why Is Another Lawyer Charging Less?  I can assure you that my fees will be competitive with those of other qualified lawyers, but most importantly, you will know, in writing, exactly what to expect from me and at what cost.  When a lawyer quotes you a fee, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting for that fee.  Does the fee include every court setting, including a jury trial?  Will you have to pay extra for any license revocation hearings or occupational license applications?  What about sealing your record, re-trial, appeals, etc.?  It may seem like one lawyer is more expensive than another, but when you factor everything in, the “more expensive” lawyer might actually cost you less by the time the case is over.  At the end of the day, it all boils down to this:  you get what you pay for.  Aren’t your liberty, peace of mind, and future worth more than just a few hundred (or thousand) dollars?

[1] The myth that court appointed lawyers are inept is baseless – in fact, some of the best criminal defense lawyers in Texas represent people on a court appointed basis.

[2] A lawyer will sometimes assume the worst possible scenario and set their fee in preparation that they might have to do a tremendous amount of work on the case.  This is not a bad system, and it generally implies that the lawyer intends to leave no stone un-turned.  The only problem with this type of fee is that it could cost the client significantly more than if the lawyer had simply spent more time with the client to gather additional information to more accurately estimate the work requirement for the specific case.

Every case has its own unique idiosyncrasies. Some cases will require a great deal of work to be performed in terms of research, generation of legal documents, and time spent in court. Other cases will only require the attention of a single legal professional and be resolved more quickly.

It is often difficult to determine how long it will take to complete casework. This is why we go over the costs of each potential client’s defense during the initial consultation. Sit down with our staff and we will explain our fee structures and anticipated costs in detail. You will have a full understanding of the potential cost of your case after meeting with our team.

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