APPLES & ORANGES: DON'T LET FLAT FEE FEES QUOTES BY ATTORNEYS CONFUSE YOU
It is very important to understand the fees charged by criminal defense attorneys.
WHAT IS A "RETAINER?"
For most criminal defense cases -- short of very complex or unusual cases -- many attorneys charge a flat fee for defending against specific charges. This is how I usually bill for criminal defense work. A flat fee means that you will pay the same amount no matter how much work or time is involved. If through past experience and skill I get the charges dropped with little time or work, the same fee is due. If I end up spending a lot more time and investing a lot more work than expected, it will still cost only the exact same fee. A flat fee is not refundable, because it is not a deposit.
Some criminal defense attorneys will advertise or quote a price which sounds very low. But usually this price only covers the minimal amount of involvement, such as to hold your hand while you plead guilty, or to simply negotiate a plea deal (in which you plead guilty to a lesser charge).
Such an attorney will often charge a much higher fee if you go trial. If you are not willing to plead guilty to the charged offense or a lesser charge, but want to go to trial, you may get charged a lot more money.
As a result, you may hear of criminal defense attorneys who will agree to take your case for a small amount of money like $500 or $750. But this often does not cover actually fighting the charges -- only perhaps bargaining down the charges and pleading you guilty to a lesser charge.
So it is important to know what attorneys are really offering. Make sure you ask "What will it cost if we have to go to trial?"
Now, to be fair and accurate, it makes a huge difference. On your court date, plea deals ("bargains") are handled early in the morning. The court runs through these rapidly. But to go through a trial, you and your attorney need to sit around and wait most of the day. Often, the trials are not called until the early afternoon, or whenever all the shorter business is out of the way first. You and your attorney will have to sit most of the day and wait for the trial (although this time can be used to strategize, prepare, talk to various witnesses, and practice the rigors of testifying).
As a result, the attorney will be investing a tremendous amount of additional work and time to take you to trial, far greater than to work out a deal. This is why it costs a lot more to take a case to trial.
However, our goal is to win a "not guilty" decision for you, or at least a dismissal of the charges. We want to go to trial with you, not simply hold your hand while you plead guilty. Still... it is your decision, obviously.
NOTE: NO ONE CAN PLEAD GUILTY FOR YOU WITHOUT YOUR CONSENT.
Accepting a plea deal is always the decision of the individual person who is accused. YOU DECIDE and no one but you.
That is why I clearly offer a flat fee charge "schedule" for different situations. I clearly tell you what it will cost if you want to negotiate a deal offered by the prosecutor (Assistant Commonwealth Attorney or ACA). This will usually mean you are pleading guilty to at least some criminal violation of some sort. If you don't agree with the offer proposed by the prosecutor (if any), then you can decide to go to trial. I charge different flat fees if we go to trial or if we don't go to trial.
Unfortunately, we have to be ready for trial, because we will usually not know whether the prosecutor will offer a deal acceptable to you until the court date. It might often be necessary to bring witnesses, prepare document exhibits as evidence, and hire an expert witness even if they are not actually needed. We won't know until the court date if they are needed or not. But you will be in a bad situation if you need these things and we don't have them ready.
WHAT IS A "FLAT FEE?
It is very important to understand whether an attorney is charging you a FLAT FEE or simply asking for a "deposit" or "retainer" toward future legal fees.
A client owes a "flat fee" (that has been agreed to) regardless of how much or how little time or work is required for the case. If the attorney ends up spending a lot more time than expected for your case, the "flat fee" remains the same. If the attorney spends less time than expected, the fee is the same.
However, when a lawyer works on an hourly fee, he or she will almost always require payment in advance of an estimated amount of the fees that will probably be charged. This is NOT the total amount of the fees that will be charged. This is an advance deposit.
Most lawyers will require a client to pay in advance for future legal work before the lawyer will start to do the work. This advance "deposit" often called a "retainer" must be deposited in a special bank account called an attorney's "trust account."
I usually try to estimate how much work will be involved in the first round work of work, and ask for a deposit for that number of hours, and then see together what I might do for the next step in your case.
Any attorney is required by the rules of the legal profession to keep this advance money separate in a 'trust account' until the attorney actually completes legal work to earn fees. The attorney can withdraw money from the "trust account" only after work is done (although money can be withdrawn for each hour of work, without waiting for the final completion of the case as a whole).
Rules for the legal profession, the law generally, and the attorney "Fee Agreement" all will require that the attorney must return any money that is not earned by the attorney actually performing real legal work for the client. This is a "deposit," not a flat fee. Unused money must be returned to the client.
However, if the attorney does more legal work than paid for by the advance deposit, the client will owe MORE MONEY for the additional work. The deposit or retainer is only an advance payment for some legal work. It is not the final or total bill.
In almost all cases, the initial deposit or "retainer" is NOT ENOUGH to pay for all the legal fees and expenses in a case. It is important to understand that the client will almost certainly need to make additional payments after the money of the deposit is used up.
There are two opinions as to what the word "retainer" means for legal services. Originally, a retainer was often a "flat fee" paid to a lawyer to be available to do legal work, and the fee was paid and due whether or not the lawyer actually did any work or not in any particular month.
However, overwhelmingly, the word "retainer" has been changed to mean an advance payment or really a DEPOSIT for future legal fees.
AM I YOUR LAWYER OR NOT?
Because people have the right to (and should) interview with several lawyers before choosing a lawyer, sometimes it is not clear when exactly or IF an attorney is actually "your lawyer" or not. It is important to be very clear. You don't want to think you have a lawyer, and then not get your problem taken care of. If both you and the attorney agree that the attorney will be your lawyer, this decision and agreement should be clearly communicated by both sides. Normally this will be made clear by both the client and the atorney signing a contract or "Fee Agreement." Normally, an attorney will NOT be "your lawyer" until you have paid the initial payment agreed and both sides have signed the contract of "Fee Agreement." However, legal rules make clear that the "attorney-client privilege" still protects your confidential information when you are seeking legal advice and seeking an attorney. And for routine, short-term work, we can verbally agree to a legal project.
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