By William L. Baskette, Esq.
When you first meet with an attorney, the first issue you should bet out of the way is the fee. In criminal cases, the lawyers usually charge a flat fee. The reason for that is that few prison inmates can pay the rest of the fees while in jail. In civil cases, the lawyers may take a retainer and then bill on an hourly basis. In either case, how much your case will cost must be determined.
A flat fee is simply an estimate of the number of hours the lawyer feels he will spend on your entire case, multiplied by his hourly billing. This kind of fee is usually overestimated to protect the lawyer. For example, if the lawyer charges $150.00 per hour and estimates 10 hours of work, he will charge a flat fee of $1,500.00. The retainer fee is an estimate of the initial time to be spent on the case, multiplied by the lawyer’s hourly rate. In a retainer case, the lawyer may believe it will take him 10 hours to get the case ready for court, but there may be more to the fee later on. In that case, there may be additional fees not considered in the original estimate. The rest of the fees over 10 hours might be billed by the hour.
You can save money either way by demanding that the fee agreement is in writing and you know what it is you are paying for. Are you paying for uncontested hearings only (plea bargains) or is your fee good all the way through trial? Ask your lawyer if there is an additional fee for an appeal. An appeal is usually an additional charge, and this fee can be decided at the time the original agreement is signed.
If a lawyer charges you a retainer fee on an hourly basis for 10 estimated hours of work but only worked a few hours on your case, are you entitled to a refund? Yes you are. If he charges you a flat fee, say, a plea bargain, then you are probably not entitled to a refund. Be sure to ask up front if your fee is refundable. If you pay $1,000 for a DWI plea, then you may not get a refund if you agreed that the fee is non-refundable.
If you pay a fee to a lawyer and later decide to hire someone else, then you may have to pay again. Ask for the agreement to be explained to you before you sign it to be sure you understand the contract. Do not make the mistake of taking the billing agreement too lightly. As a contract, your agreement may be enforceable in court and binding on you. After you get the matter of your fee out of the way, you can then concentrate on your case.