Perhaps the first thing anyone looking for a DUI lawyer should know is that cost does not equal value. In other words, it’s very easy to wind up paying WAY too much in legal fees for ordinary representation and unexceptional results in a DUI case. On the flip side, you will NEVER get what you don’t pay for, either, and there are no bargains when it comes to quality. This is especially true regarding legal representation.
In a very real way, figuring out what you should expect to spend for a good lawyer is very much about learning how to filter out BS, and there is certainly a lot of it out there. If you google anything about legal fees in DUI cases (which is probably how you found this article), you will almost immediately find yourself inundated with messages that practically scream “I’m the best, so I charge the most,” along with the shrieks of alarmists who try to convince you to “Call NOW!”
Relax, and don’t make that mistake. There is absolutely zero downside to taking the time to do your homework and go about finding a DUI lawyer like a smart consumer, and anyone who suggests differently should be avoided like the plague. As you look around, though, remember that because all lawyers (myself included) are in business to make money, you also need to “read between the lines,” so to speak, and always be aware of the ever-present self interest in everything you encounter.
One of the first things we should clarify is the term “DUI lawyer,” or “DUI attorney.” Because DUI cases (in Michigan the offense is actually called “Operating While Intoxicated,” or “OWI”) are criminal cases, all DUI lawyers do, in fact, practice criminal law. However, there are all kinds of other criminal offenses, from assault, murder and rape, to white collar and theft crimes beyond drunk driving offenses. Thus, a DUI is a very specific kind of criminal case.
Accordingly, all DUI lawyers are criminal lawyers, but not all criminal lawyers are DUI lawyers.
Think about “dentistry,” for example: the field involves general dentistry, oral surgery, endodontics, orthodontics, and even cosmetic dentistry. A general dentist can do braces, cosmetic work and even orthodontics. In some cases, that’s probably good enough. However, when my daughter needed braces, our family dentist referred us to an orthodontist, and when I needed a root canal, he sent me to an endodontist.
Ultimately, the endodontist spends all day, every day, doing root canals, and the orthodontist spends all of his or her time working with braces. These specialists not only know all the ins and outs of their specific practice areas, but over time, they have encountered and dealt with every sort of exception and strange kind of case that could ever arise. Even if they do come across something they haven’t seen before, their experience makes them prepared to deal with it, or at least figure out how to properly do so.
However skilled he or she may be, a world-class criminal lawyer who tries murder cases and challenges DNA evidence is NOT a full-time DUI lawyer.
It’s very much the same thing for the fastest and best runner in the 3200 meter run; he or she is very different from the fastest and best in the 100 meter dash, and that person is different from the fastest and best in other running events, like the 200 and 400 meter dashes.
Although there is no formal, legal definition of a “DUI lawyer,” I have always believed that a lawyer is a “something-lawyer” if and when those “something” kind of cases comprise the majority of his or her work.
A person has no real claim to the title “DUI lawyer” or “DUI attorney” unless most of his or her actual work is in the DUI field, no matter how good he or she may be in other areas. Thus, we circle back to the notion that all DUI lawyers are criminal lawyers, but not all criminal lawyers are DUI lawyers.
This brings us to the point that, if you’re going to pay for a lawyer to handle your DUI case, you would be well served by making sure he or she is not just some lawyer who “does” DUI cases along with a broad range of other things, as well. As the old saying goes, however, “You can’t be all things to all people.”
In terms of actual costs, I will use the fees in my own office as an example. Before I get to them, though, I do want to make another point specifically about why we publish our fees: I am the only lawyer I know (there may be others, but I’m not aware of them) who actually lists fees on his or her website (and this blog), and I do it for 2 main reasons:
First, I think it’s only fair.
When I’m in need of goods or services, I can’t stand clicking through websites that hide or are in any way secretive about costs. I understand that, for some things, a firm fee or price cannot be quoted, but that’s no reason to not at least give someone a “ballpark” idea of what something is going to cost. In the DUI world, there is NO REASON to not be able to give at least a “from” amount, so a person knows what they’re looking at.
Listing prices is, of course, the exact opposite of the rather distasteful tactic of quoting fees based upon what the lawyer thinks he or she can get from any particular client.
I remember a tax lawyer once explaining this pricing strategy to me: under the guise of “getting a little information” to find out what was at risk for someone owing back taxes, he’d ask where they work, how much they made, and whether they owned a home, and, if so, how much equity they had in it.
While the person thought their answers were clarifying what property the IRS could take from them for unpaid taxes, the lawyer was actually sizing up how much they could afford to pay him. I find that kind of stuff downright offensive. Having our fees published online means that everyone is treated the same. Our orthodontist had a printed fee schedule, and didn’t vary the price just because someone could afford more.
I’d never want that done to me, and I certainly wouldn’t do it to anyone else. Our fee for a 1st offense DUI is almost always exactly the $3800 listed on the website, unless the case is either at the farthest end of where we go and/or is otherwise extremely complicated.
Second, and this is about me more than anything else, precisely because we are a higher-end practice, I want my fees out there so we don’t waste time with bargain-hunters and tire-kickers.
Anytime a person misses the “Fees” section of our website and calls or emails and asks something like “how much do you charge,” I KNOW he or she is price-shopping, and while that’s fine if that’s what matters most to him or her, we have no interest in competing in any kind of “best price” game.
Here is our DUI fee schedule, as printed online, and as of this writing. Please note, these fees could change at anytime, and they WILL go up at some point, so this listing is only relevant as of the date of the article:
- First (1st) Offense DUI: $3800
- High BAC charge: $4300
- Second (2nd) Offense DUI: $4400
- Third (3rd) Offense (Felony) DUI: From $7200
These fees were calculated based upon the amount of legal work we do in most cases. There are times when things kind of snowball and I think we undercharged for all the work we did, but by and large, these are as fair to both us and our clients as we can calculate.
We do NOT build the cost of trial into our fees, nor do we build in the cost of extra-ordinary work, either. There are some extremely rare occasions when the amount of work required in a case is so much more than expected that we do have to charge more, although I honestly cannot recall the last time this happened.
Our fee agreement spells all of this out clearly, though, so there are never any unpleasant surprises. I hate surprises, especially when it comes to money, because they always come as bad news. I live by the principle to treat others the way I would want to be treated.
The reason we don’t build in the cost of of a trial is that trials are expensive undertakings, and the whole idea of paying for one up front, especially if you’re not going to have it, is just plain foolish.
That’s like going to a cardiologist for an irregular heartbeat, and him or her telling you that, statistically speaking, your problem can almost always be fixed by medication, but that he or she wants you to pay the cost of open-heart surgery up-front, just in case.
If a lawyer is “high end” enough to deal with clients who can afford a better class of legal services to begin with, then he or she doesn’t need to get paid in advance for work that almost certainly will NOT be done, anyway.
The idea of not getting screwed over on fees is really more the realm of attorneys dealing with people who face charges like burglary and welfare fraud, not DUI cases for people of sufficient means.
We’ll stop here, and come back, in part 2 to look at how a careful, first rate examination of the evidence is (or at least should be) included in any fee you pay for a DUI lawyer. We’ll also examine the role of evidence, the cold and disappointing facts about trail outcomes, and what you should and should not be paying for with respect to each.