How much does it cost to hire a lawyer?
We’re a law firm, so our answer of course has to be it depends. It depends on the type of law, the lawyer’s experience and skill, and the geography (for instance, a small-town Northern Michigan law firm with an office on Main Street a block away from the courthouse will not typically command the same fees as a firm with luxe offices in a Midtown Detroit highrise). The it depends answer is all well and good for us lawyer types, but it’s not so great for you as the consumer. At the end of the day, you probably just want to know two things (1) What’s the total damage going to be? and (2) How much to get started?
At Coontz Law, we know those are the questions you want answered, so just a quick word on how different law firms bill. Generally speaking, there are three billing models that law firms use: contingency, hourly, and flat. Contingency just means the lawyer’s fee is dependent on the outcome of the case. Hourly is exactly what it sounds like: you pay the lawyer by the hour. Flat is also exactly what it sounds like: it’s a predetermined fee for a certain type of work.
It’s actually unethical for lawyers to use a contingency fee in criminal cases, so we won’t spend much time talking about that other than to say we do use this method in our civil rights cases. In short, it’s one of those we-win-if-you-win deals. In those cases, we take one-third of the total settlement/verdict as our fee (though if we win at trial, we get to make the Government pay for all or part of that!)
In criminal cases, though, it usually comes down to whether the lawyer bills by the hour or by the case. The way hourly firms typically work is that they require an up-front sum of money, which they take as a retainer. That money belongs to you, and they have to put it in their trust account. As they spend time on your case and forward expenses on your behalf, they get to move money over from the trust account into their operating account, meaning the money is now theirs.
When the trust account gets below a certain level, they will require you to pay more money into the trust account for them to continue work. If you can’t keep paying them, they can withdraw from the case (although in criminal cases, attorneys can only withdraw if the court gives them permission).
The other method is the flat-fee model: You pay a predetermined amount for a certain scope of work. It seems simple, but there are actually some nuances to the flat-fee model. Some firms will bill a flat fee for everything except trial, with another flat fee due if you exercise your right to a trial. In felony cases, some firms will bill a flat fee for District Court representation, a separate flat fee for Circuit Court representation, and a third flat fee for trial.
What we’ve discovered is that these billing models don’t make a lot of sense, at least from the client’s point of view. Hourly billing, in our opinion, makes things way too confusing and puts the incentives in the wrong places. We find that our clients usually want the job done well, but as soon as possible. Hourly billing makes it so the lawyer profits more by making a case drag out longer. Or by doing research that maybe isn’t really all that necessary to getting the job done. Or by driving to and from court when it would be so much better for the client for the lawyer to try to take care of the court date with an email so that the client doesn’t have to take a half day off of work. It also leads to a lot of uncertainty on the end cost, and there’s already enough uncertainty in the criminal-justice system without legal fees being one of the unanswered questions.
In our opinion, flat fees make more sense. At the time of your arraignment—your very first court date—you have no idea whether your case is going to go to trial or not. And for those felony cases that require one fee in District Court and another in Circuit, well, you probably don’t even know what that means! And what a terrible position to be in when deciding to exercise your constitutional right to a trial means having to pay the lawyer a ton more money than the ton of money you’ve already paid.
That’s why at Coontz Law we offer one flat fee for every one of our felony, misdemeanor, DUI, traffic, expungement, domestic violence, and driver’s-license cases. To be clear, it’s not the same fee for each of those cases—a criminal sexual conduct case is going to cost a lot more than a speeding ticket. But we try to make things simple by not nickel-and-diming our clients; we agree to a single flat fee at the beginning of the case, and the fee is the fee, whether we go through with a two-week jury trial or we get a great result without having to set foot in court.
This puts the incentives in the right places for us. It’s a fee for us to get the job done. We are more profitable if we get the case dismissed or resolved quickly and get this weight lifted from your shoulders as soon as possible. You pay for our expertise, not our ability to sit on our asses for three hours while we wait for your case to be called. You also get the guarantee that if your case requires more work, you don’t have to pay for that extra work because it’s already baked into the fee. Sometimes additional costs come up in the course of litigation, aside from our fee. We’ll do our best to help you navigate and mitigate those costs, though.
We also try to be accessible by offering different payment options. We offer in-house, interest-free payment plans that allow you to pay off your legal fee over time, with as little as 40% of the total payment due upfront. Or if you’d prefer to get the bill taken care of on the front end, we offer a 10%-off paid-in-full discount.
Okay, we’ve been talking about fees for a long time without actually answering the two questions you probably want answered: (1) What’s the total damage going to be? and (2) How much to get started? All we’ve written explains how we charge our fees, but it doesn’t explain what we charge. We promise we’re getting there, but first a bit more on how we arrive at the figures before we actually arrive there.
A couple years ago, the RAND Corporation released a study titled Caseload Standards for Indigent Defenders in Michigan. It’s a fascinating study, but the thing that’s important to you is their conclusion for recommended median attorney times on certain case types. This is what they came up with:
|Murder or manslaughter
|CSC (1st, 2nd, and 3rd degrees)
|Other class A offenses
|Other high-severity felonies
|Low-severity felonies and two-year high court misdemeanors
|Other adult criminal indigent defense trial court-level matter
This table is what we use to determine our fees. We multiply that median number by a reasonable hourly rate (somewhere between $200–$300 per hour) and account for the possibility of trial to get to our fee. We’ve found that this can still be an overly complicated system, though, so we’ve had to make adjustments as we go. We understand this doesn’t give you a precise number, but this gives you an idea of what kind of math we’re doing when we quote you a price during your free consultation.
Whatever you or your loved one are charged with, we know we’re asking for more than just pocket change. We understand that, and we take it seriously. We also want you to know that we’re committed to and invested in getting the job done, no matter how much time it takes. These reasons are why we allow folks to pay over time and don’t charge more if the case requires a little extra work (or a lot). Whatever the fee decided on at the outset of the case, though, you can be certain that that is the only fee you will ever have to pay us to see your case through to the very end.