How much should you pay a Lawyer for a DUI? – Part 3

In part 2 of this article, we resumed our examination of legal fees in Michigan drunk driving cases, ending right in the middle of our discussion about how DUI lawyers tend to develop a sub-specialty, or niche, even within the already concentrated area of drunk driving law. Here, we’ll jump right back into the middle of our analysis: Of those DUI lawyers whose “niche” is the breathalyzer machine, it wouldn’t surprise me if any one of them could take apart and rebuild the breathalyzer machine while blindfolded. That’s one facet of the science aspect of DUI cases. If your case isn’t tossed out of court, however, because of faulty breath test results, then that expertise isn’t going to do you much good. It became clear to me, early on, that what really mattered in any DUI case that didn’t get knocked out of court was what the Judge actually did, in the end, to the client; in other words, what kind of sentence did the Judge impose? If someone gets ordered into counseling twice a week, and has to go to AA twice a week, as well, that’s the outcome – the living reality – of their DUI. That’s what happens to them. If that same person doesn’t relate particularly well to the assigned counselor, and/or otherwise hates AA, then what happened to them is all the more unpleasant. I wanted to focus my efforts on directly influencing what actually happened to my clients to make sure that we can avoid having them get stuck with ill-fitting or unnecessary counseling and treatment. It doesn’t take an expert of any kind to figure out that the legal system is poised to hurl all kinds of alcohol education, counseling and treatment at drunk drivers. It does, however, take a certain expertise to directly influence how that actually plays out.

Moneybags 1.3.jpgThe short version is that I wanted to keep my clients out of counseling and out of AA and avoid as much of the other fallout as possible for someone dealing with a DUI. I do that exceptionally well because I have formally studied and understand the science behind the diagnosis and treatment of alcohol problems better than any other lawyer I know. Along the way, and through my clinical matriculation, I also learned how I can help those of my clients who have, in fact, developed a troubled relationship to alcohol, as well as those about whom the system will conclude, no matter what, that their drinking has become a problem. This is particularly relevant in 2nd and 3rd offense cases. There is a lot to this, but it often comes down to making sure a client does not get stuck into something he or she hates, or gets put into the wrong kind of counseling, or is otherwise “given” the wrong kind of help.

The legal system in the United States defaults to the traditional 12-step, or AA approach to dealing with drinking problems. This is not, overall, a recipe for success. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that 2 out of 3 people who maintain long-term abstinence from alcohol do it without AA. That’s a fact. We also know that the wrong kind of “help” can make things worse, not better. Take a young woman in her late 20’s whose drinking is just starting to get out of hand. If some Judge orders her to AA twice a week, and she walks into a room full of middle aged men in flannel shirts, you can be sure that any therapeutic benefit that AA may have offered goes out the window. The ONLY thing she’s thinking about as she’s forced to sit there is when she can leave. The breathalyzer lawyer doesn’t know this about all stuff, yet if she hires him, and unless her case is knocked out on some scientific technicality or other legality, these are the real life consequences she’ll have to face.

I make sure that doesn’t happen. When I walk into a courtroom, I am the foremost expert on alcohol and addiction issues. These issues are my passion, and the end result is that I produce better results, meaning I make things genuinely and substantially less difficult, for my clients. You won’t get within a galaxy of any of that if the lawyer you hire is looking over a divorce file while he she sits in court waiting for your DUI case to be called.

None of this is meant to imply that there is anything wrong with AA. AA is a great program, and, in the larger picture, really gives us the language of recovery. Most sobriety court programs involve extensive AA attendance. In the right context, AA can help build a foundation for sobriety even in someone for whom AA is not a good long term fit.

Does this sound like a prelude to the idea that hiring a “real DUI lawyer” will cost more? Surprisingly, the answer is that it is not. As I mentioned before, I have shaken my head in disbelief as I’ve taken on client’s for a 2nd or 3rd DUI who related how much they paid – and how disappointed they were – to the lawyer for their 1st offense. In many of these instances, the previous lawyer was someone I’ve never heard of in the DUI field, and when the client can see the honest bewilderment on my face when I tell them that, they usually follow with a story about how they came to that lawyer through a referral. There will always be people in any field, be it lawyers, shoe stores, cars or even cement contractors, which cash in on those gullible souls who believe that paying the most always means getting the best. If you can muster up the most basic consumer skills and just spend a little time doing some comparison-shopping, you can usually figure all this out on your own.

This is another huge point: DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Look, I’m in business to make money, but good advice is good advice, so even if you’ve come to me through the most glowing referral possible, what kind of hypocrite would I be if I didn’t encourage you to still look around? Look at content. Look at substance. This is a nice way of saying that you should ignore slogans. “Tough” and “aggressive” are MINIMUM starting points for just about any area of the law. If that’s the best or most relevant information some lawyer has to offer, keep looking. This is 2015, and we’re well into the information age. Read the articles each lawyer has written, and then call his or her office. Can the person that answers the phone answer your questions and help you out, even a little? Or, do immediately get pressed to make an appointment and come in for a “consultation?”

That, by the way, is a tactic I hate, and I will run away from anytime someone tries to use it one me. I don’t care if you’re the first person to land on Mars and your DUI happened in a flying car, there is nothing so unique about it that we can’t figure things a bit in a phone call, and often with a just a few questions on my side. When and where did your DUI happen? Did you take a breath test? If so, what did you blow? Is this your 1st offense? With the answers to those 5 questions, I can tell you a lot, and so can any lawyer who genuinely knows what he or she is doing. I hate the appointment tactic because the only reason anyone wants to drag you in for a “consultation” is to give you a front row seat in the “client chair.” “Hook ’em and book ’em,” as they say.

I don’t work that way. I never have, and I never will. You want information about your DUI, then just pick up the phone and call my office. In almost every case, the person who answers your call can give you more information that you’d imagine. Heck, I take my paralegal to court sometimes to see what happens in DUI cases. She has sat with me in initial meeting with clients, worked side-by-side with me to investigate the files, acquire the police car videos, and police station videos, watched them with me and then gone to court when I meet with the prosecutor. She has followed up with me and sat in as I thereafter meet again with the clients to prepare him or her to undergo the mandatory alcohol evaluation (a written test) that must, by law, be completed by anyone going through the whole DUI process. She won’t put you on hold, or take a number and promise that I’ll call you back later. She’ll be able to give you more information than you’ll probably get in a whole morning’s worth of phone calls. Even if I’m not in, you’ll get answers to your questions right when you call. I expect that much when I call around, and I will not settle to provide less to any prospective client of mine.

Beyond my paralegal, I have a senior assistant who has probably worked on 10 times more DUI files than most regular lawyers will even handle in their careers. She helped train my paralegal. She knows the information people at various police departments to get the in-car video; she knows the clerks at the local courts and what they need to adjourn or reschedule a case. In a word, she knows DUI inside out. My point is that you can call my office and, instead of someone trying to “hook” you into an appointment, you can get answers to your questions without delay. Isn’t that the meaning of “consultation,” anyway?

Okay, so enough of all that. Now, let’s talk money. I’m going to list what I charge first, and then we’ll talk about prices ranges thereafter:

First offense cases: $2800
Second offense cases: $3800
Third offense (felony) cases: $6000*

That asterisk* next to the fee for third offenses means the price can go (slightly) higher. Normally, this means that really complicated 3rd offense cases pending in Oakland and Wayne Counties can cost as much as $7000. It does NOT mean that the fee “starts at” one thing, and then shoots over the moon every time you turn around.

In fact, I remember, growing up, when I didn’t have any money. My father worked as a mailman, so we got by, but we were far from wealthy. Anyway, when I needed new tires on my car (a 1974 Plymouth Scamp with no air conditioning and rusted-through floorboards; I’d stick basement tiles under the carpet to keep the water out. The gas tank was held up by about a mile of laundry rope tied around it and the frame of the car), I went to one of those places that had advertised something like “New Tires Starting at $49.99” (it was the 80’s, so prices were different back then). I remember thinking that, with tax, I’d be out the door for about $216 (the Michigan sales tax was also 4% back then). Next thing I know the guy is figuring out the real cost: Valve stems were not included, so you had to buy those. Mounting the tire was not included in the $49.99 price, either. Then you had to add balancing (if you wanted your bargain tires to last more than a few months) and a sneaky “tire disposal” fee for each of the old tires. That added about another $100 to the bill. I had $220 in my pocket, and you could see the belts in my old, worn tires. I wound up going to Sears and buying used tires.

While that experience sucked, it forever tuned me in to be wary of prices “starring at” or “from.” It also made me wary of anything advertised as a deal almost too good to be true. I don’t work that way, and I never will. I’m up front about the fact that my usual fees, like those of just about every lawyer out there, do NOT include trial fees. Trials are rare, anyway, so there is little use in talking about something that is incredibly unlikely to happen. I also charge “extra” for services like filing motions in court to challenge the evidence, or to file for a deviation, meaning a “special” plea deal, from the prosecutor’s office. These things, as I pointed out before, run in the hundreds, and not thousands of dollars, and the cost is quoted up front. I will never surprise someone with a bill. If you haven’t already figured it out, I hate that stuff, don’t ever want it done to me, and therefore believe it’s wrong to do to anyone else.

We’ll break here, and then return in part 4 for our final installment. We’ll come back to our discussion by asking the most important question of all – how much should you pay for a DUI lawyer.

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