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Of pork bellies, lawyers and their fees

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"How much do you charge for a [murder/rape/drug felony] case?" the relative asks, for a criminal defendant stuck in jail pretrial having been denied bond or unable to pay bond. Sometimes the defendant has court-appointed counsel (some of the greatest criminal defense lawyers started as court-appointed/public defender lawyers, and many still are), and the family tries to find out the cost of a retained lawyer after guilty plea negotiations have fallen through or fear of the upcoming trial intensifies, with little or no familiarity with attorney fee ranges if they have just started to inquire.  Some people asking about fees over the phone are, of course, trying to shop among lawyers without feeling like they are wasting their own time first to visit too many lawyers.

Sometimes I am tempted to ask whether the same caller would call a shoe store asking the price of a pair of shoes, without mentioning the type, model and size to the salesperson. Likewise, how many people ask a doctor his or her surgery fees before visiting the doctor for a first time? I resist that temptation. This is my opportunity to start explaining how I set my fees, which is to start with a calendared initial consultation, where I will set my fee — usually a flat fee for a pending criminal trial — based on the individual circumstances of the potential client and the case.

Speaking with a shoe store and doctor at the outset about their fees are more commonplace for most people than to seek a lawyer’s assistance. Many people feel like fishes out of water talking with lawyers. A common refrain I hear from people who never have called a lawyer is: "I am new to this. I do not know what to ask or say," with some trying then to talk on and on, and others then seeking a cue from the lawyer.

I welcome the opportunity to hear and respond to the concerns, hopes, and fears of potential criminal defense clients, including about my fees. This is the opportunity for both the potential client and I to determine whether we are a good fit for each other. I am happy to explain to potential clients how I arrive at the tailor-made fee — usually a flat fee for pending trial case — as well as why I do not negotiate on my fees (because I have set them through fourteen years of experience, calculated for my staff and I to give each client full time and attention and full firepower) and why I do not accept payment plans (among other things, late payments should not be a wedge in my relationship with my client; I want to agree on payment (or not) and then move fully into full representation).

Some potential clients tell me of my moral obligation to serve justice by doing free and reduced-fee work. I do include such work, but it is I — not the potential client — who decides which people will receive my pro bono and low bono work. I look forward to the day when I have no need for an income and can provide all my clients with free service, but when that day comes, I still will be selective about who receives such service, which I usually focus on those with certain First Amendment-related matters, those who seem to have been victimized for their race or other status that should not be discriminated against, and animal rights activists.  

How do I serve equal access to justice in the way I set my fees? Fortunately, indigent criminal defendants are entitled to court-appointed counsel under  Gideon V. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), and its progeny. However, in the states where I practice, Virginia pays non-Public Defender court-appointed counsel abysmally, and sets the hurdle too high to qualify for indigent defense counsel. While there are qualified lawyers who bill less than I, I still have an obligation to help equal access to justice, and am honored to do selected pro bono and low bono work.

Consequently, I set my fees, and provide these tips — beyond merely fees — for choosing a criminal defense and DWI defense lawyer.

Criminal defendants are free to place price above all else in selecting a lawyer, and some have insufficient financial resources to do otherwise, which is one of the reasons I advocate shrinking the criminal justice system.

Decades ago, a system of uniformity was created at the Commodities Futures exchange, to sell pork bellies (for bacon), orange juice, coffee  hogs, cattle and numerous other non-uniform agricultural products (but how do we call sentient beings agricultural products?) In my college economics classes, I learned that our studies assumed perfect competition, where all widgets are the same and where no competitor had a competitive advantage over the other. Lawyers, though, do not provide service and quality duplicating that of all other lawyers. The only way for a criminal defendant to find a qualified lawyer is through careful questions of the lawyer, homework, and tapping into networks that will know good lawyers to recommend.

I am delighted to quote my initial consultation fee over the phone to callers. I bill for jail visits depending on how far away is the jail, how accommodating the jail will be with my arranging and pursuing the meeting, and how long the meeting is likely to take to prepare for and hold, followed by debriefing the friend or family member who arranged my visit. For non-jail visits, I will bill hourly for some meetings, a flat fee for some others, and none for still others. I will not quote a fee before the initial consultation takes place, not even a ballpark, except that I will sometimes provide some sort of rough minimum flat fee price range when quoting a substantial jail visit fee. I fit my fees and services to the potential client’s goals and the defendant’s case at hand, with the resources that I anticipate my staff and I will need to provide, while also focusing on my maintaining a moderate number of clients so that I may fully and effectively serve each of them.

A pamphlet that I once saw being distributed at the D.C. Superior Court’s criminal clerk’s office advised people that most lawyers will take the time to speak with them by phone first before having a scheduled meeting. How could that be with a busy criminal defense lawyer who often will be in the courtroom when people are calling? The lawyer is not going to pick up the phone in the courtroom, and may not be interested in phone tag rather than having the potential client set a discussion or meeting time through the lawyer’s support staff.

I am here to fully serve each of my clients, and bill to provide them the full firepower of me and my staff.