How Much do Criminal Attorneys Cost?
As I’m sure you’re aware, the question posed in the title will have a wide variety of answers. An attorney representing Donald Trump in an election fraud case is going to charge a different amount than an attorney representing some one on a DWI or a Simple Assault.
The same is true from region to region. A rural attorney in a small town is going to charge a different fee than a Manhattan attorney, even for the same charge. This post is discussing Austin-area fees, as that is what I am immersed in on a daily basis.
There are two main ways that criminal attorneys get paid. Well, there are actually three. But, I’m not going to be talking about court appointed attorneys or public defenders here. So besides that, criminal attorneys are usually either paid on an hourly basis or a flat fee.
Hourly RateAn hourly rate is pretty self explanatory. An attorney tracks his or her hours and bills the client, usually each month. The client is usually responsible for keeping the retainer full, which is basically an advance on the hourly fee. That retainer should be kept in what is called an IOLTA account, which is just a trust account where the attorney holds client funds. As the fees are earned, the attorney can withdraw the funds from the IOLTA account. A typical hourly rate is 300, 400 or 500 dollars an hour. Keep in mind that the hourly rate is what you pay, but it’s understood that the hourly rate is covering not just the attorney’s time, but overhead expenses as well. As a rule of thumb, about 1/3 of that is actually going to the attorney. Some contracts have a provision that paralegal or administrative work is billed at a lower rate, even when the attorney is doing the work. Hourly rates typically result in a higher fee, but not always
I don’t typically use hourly rates in my own practice. I don’t like keeping track of times because the tracking of time itself can become a burden. Drawing the line between attorney and paralegal work is not something I want to spend brain power doing. So I’ve done what many criminal defense attorneys have done and charge on a flat fee basis. I’ve found that my clients also appreciate the certainty of a flat fee.
A flat fee is simply a way of charging for representation that sets out a fee for representation at the beginning. It doesn’t change whether I spend 5 hours or 20 hours on a case. I can do this because when a client comes to me about a criminal matter, I will usually have a pretty good idea about how long the case will take, and how much time will be required.
Of course it’s a spectrum. Some cases take a lot longer than I was expecting. Others resolve more quickly. Over time, these average out, and I can set my fees accordingly. I don’t feel bad when a case drags on and on, because there will be a case in the future that will resolve more quickly, and that’s just life.
Another huge benefit to flat fees is that it provides certainty for my clients. My fees typically cover every part of a representation until trial. At that point, an additional trial fee is sometimes added.
When determining my flat fee, I take into account a number of factors, including whether the charge is felony or misdemeanor, what the specific charge is, whether there is a criminal history, and which jurisdiction the charge is taking place.
Felony vs. Misdemeanor
Obviously, felony cases are usually going to be more difficult than misdemeanors. A felony takes place in District Court instead of County Court, it is more likely that jail time will be on the line, there is a greater chance that there will be bond issues and other pretrial issues. Therefore, flat fees in felonies are higher.
Type of Charge
I will typically charge slightly less for a simple drug possession misdemeanor, or a low-value theft charge. These types of cases can often be resolved quickly. If the drug charge includes an allegation of dealing or manufacturing the drug, this can bump the charge to a felony and the attorney fees can be much higher. The most common charges I handle are Assault and DWI cases. Because I handled so many of these, I have a standard flat fee that I charge.
A lengthy criminal history can make a charge more difficult. Prosecutors will be less likely to offer a good plea, so the chance of trial is higher. Even if there are only one or two previous charges, they can make a difference. For example, a previous DWI bumps the new charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor. A previous family violence charge can bump the new charge to a felony. For these reasons, a criminal history can sometimes increase the attorney fee for a new charge.
I don’t think it is fair that a person charged on one side of an imaginary line should face different consequences that a person charged for the exact same crime on a different side of that line. Unfortunately, the reality is that different counties prosecute people very differently. I handle cases in Travis, Williamson and Hays counties. For Hays and Williamson, I do charge a slightly higher rate. This is because cases in these counties will go for longer and typically require more in-person court dates. On average, outcomes in these counties will typically be worse than Travis County as well.
With the caveat that my fees can vary based on the factors listed above, I can give ballpark figures for common charges. For misdemeanor DWI and Assault, I charge $6,000. Misdemeanor Drug or theft charges can be less. Felony Possession of a Controlled Substance starts at $6,000 as well, but can be higher. Felonies are charged on a case-by-case basis. It can be $6,000 for a Possession of Controlled Substance (POCS case, but can be much higher for serious charges, or charges of violent crimes.
Many attorneys – myself included – accept payment plans. I require an up front payment of $2,000 on all cases, but the remainder can be on a payment plan, where payments are made on a monthly basis. I also accept credit cards.
Is it worth it?
This is a question that everyone must answer for themselves. However, a criminal charge is something that can seriously affect your present situation and haunt you in the future, sometimes for the rest of your life. You will not get a second chance to handle the charges, so your best bet is to handle it the right way, with the right attorney representing you.