In part 3 of this article, we hit the backstretch of our inquiry into legal fees in DUI cases. In this final section, we’ll race to the wire and finally get to what I consider reasonable price ranges for various Michigan DUI charges, and look at a few other considerations directly relevant to this subject, as well. Here, we can take up the very question asked at the outset of this article: How much should you pay for a DUI lawyer? First off, the most important thing you’re going to pay any lawyer for is experience. I hated that 24 years ago, when I was in my 1st year of being a lawyer, but the bottom line is that by the time I had 10 years under my belt, I could look back and say that I had learned a lot in a decade. At 15 years, I really believed that the last 5 were the most instructive. By the time I hit 20 years’ experience, it felt like I knew twice as much as I had just 5 years before. Now, at the 25-year mark, I realize that it was those first 20 years that really set the stage. After 20 years, you just “know” things. At 25 years, you even know them a little better.
Second, the fee you will pay will (or at least should be) a function of whether you’re facing a 1st offense DUI, a 2nd offense drunk driving, or a 3rd offense (felony) drinking and driving charge. There is proportionally more work, and certainly more at stake as the seriousness of the charge increases.
For some lawyers, where your case is pending can affect the fee you’ll be quoted. I really don’t get into that because I limit my DUI practice to cases pending in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties, although I will consider cases in Lapeer, Livingston and St. Clair Counties, as well. This is where the meaning of “experience” goes beyond the accumulation of years. When I take a case, I know the court and the Judge where I’ll be going. I can sell my client the experience of having been there before, and knowing how the system works. I think when a lawyer takes a case far away, in a court he or she has only been to a few times, or even had never been to before, the client is actually paying the lawyer’s tuition to learn how things work there. That’s certainly not what I’d want if I were the client. Some lawyers offer their services just about anywhere, and will hop in their car and drive 3 or 4 hours to a distant court. The risk in that is getting “home-towned,” meaning that neither the Judge nor the prosecutor is particularly happy to see a non-local lawyer take business from the local bar. Obviously, this isn’t really an issue in the Tri-County, Detroit area. Beyond that, how can you really control a case if you aren’t intimately familiar with the prosecutor’s policies (or lack thereof) and the way the particular Judge does things?
While I don’t mean this to be a comment on any other location, I can say, from extensive personal experience, that beyond the Tri-County area, I have NEVER had a hint any kind of “hometown” treatment in Lapeer, Livingston or St. Clair Counties. That’s why I’ll consider going there. Those courts, however, are a bit of a distance; not so much that they are prohibitively far, but enough so that I have little inclination to get involved in a nightmare case and then have to add the longer drive into the mix. At my stage of the game, those 25-plus years means I have that luxury. So what are the price ranges for the various DUI charges?
With all the above considerations in mind, we can finally talk money. It goes without saying that I think my prices are reasonable. However, as you look around, you’ll probably get prices all over the map. Again, it’s worth repeating that while it is important to not get “soaked” and pay too much, you will never find a “real” DUI lawyer offering his or her services for bargain prices. And remember, we’ve already established that trial fees are extra. As you look over what I’ve set out below, keep in mind that I’m talking about fees charged by a DUI lawyer. None of this applies to a lawyer who merely “does” DUI cases along with a smorgasbord of other things. Having read this far, you already know my thoughts about that kind of general practice, jack-of-all-trades operation.
For a 1st offense DUI, I’d be leery about the level of services I’d get for less than $2000. I charge $2800, and that fee is the same even if the charge is for a High BAC offense. Excluding extras for trail or challenges to the evidence, I feel that anything over $4000 is way too much for a 1st offense. Surprisingly, when someone tells me that he or she was quoted something like $7000 for a 1st offense case, it most often is by some lawyer who could never be described as a “DUI lawyer,” but rather by a lawyer who simply “does” DUI cases. Thus, a fair and reasonable 1st offense price range goes from $2500 to $3500.
In a 2nd offense DUI case, the stakes are much higher, and some of these cases can wind up getting transferred to one of the growing number of local “Sobriety Courts.” I would be concerned about any fee under $3000. I charge, subject to the previously listed caveats, $3800 in a 2nd offense DUI case. While the stakes are higher, I’d consider any fee above $4500 to be excessive. Accordingly, I believe that a fair and reasonable 2nd offense price range goes from $3000 to $4000.
3rd offense cases are a whole different world. Unfortunately, the fear factor here is so high that people are ultra-vulnerable and can be “easy pickings” for an all-too-high fee. My fee in 3rd offense DUI cases is almost always $6000.
Any fee under $4000 sounds too low, inasmuch as it sounds like it’s coming from someone without much to sell, or who needs the money kind of bad. Conversely, I think that a fee anywhere above $7000 is too high. Remember, we’re talking separate fees for trial. Thus, I may have to put a lot of work into a 3rd offense case, and am often able, particularly in Macomb and Wayne Counties, to have these felony charges reduced to misdemeanors. Even so, absent getting ready for a trial, or challenging the admissibility of the evidence in court, there isn’t enough work in even a very complicated 3rd offense DUI case to warrant fees of $8000 or more. My take is that a fair price range for a 3rd offense DUI charge goes from $5000 to $7000. I know that puts me right in the middle of what I consider reasonable, but this is my honest opinion. I heartily believe I am worth the price range I charge.
As I noted in the descriptions above, I think there are certain amounts that are just too low, and others that are way too high. There are always factors that can influence the price one way or the other. If you just bear in mind the admonition to be an astute consumer, you should be able to figure this out.
Before concluding, I want to tie up a loose end regarding my observation that beyond the facts and the law, a DUI lawyer needs to know how to use perception, science and time to influence how a case plays out. The law and the facts of the case are what they are. In a simplistic way, the law gets applied to the facts and you get a result. However, careful manipulation of things like time and perception can influence how the law, or even what law, gets applied to the facts, and even how those facts are interpreted in the first place. It was John Adams who said “facts are stubborn things.” Sometimes, we need to use science to prove facts. For example, it is largely believed that anybody facing a 2nd offense DUI has a drinking problem. About the worst strategy to take against that is to simply insist, “No, I don’t!” Instead, when a 2nd DUI just happens, and is not the byproduct of someone’s “drinking gone wild,” it becomes necessary to use the science of substance abuse screening and diagnosis, and then provide a sound evaluation to the court that demonstrates that the particular client is not, in fact, a problem drinker.
Perception covers a lot of ground; how a client is perceived by the court, how the lawyer is perceived by the prosecutor, and the perception of strength in defending the case all play a connected role in any DUI case. You can take this pretty far, because how a particular Judge perceives drunk driving cases in general may be more important that anything else, in particular.
Time is another important aspect of a DUI case, and one that is all too frequently overlooked. I am not here to tip my hand, but let’s just say that in a DUI case, as with everything else, timing is everything. That seldom results in getting a case wrapped up quickly, but, if used right, time can ONLY help a case, and in almost no circumstances can it ever have a negative impact on how things turn out.
This is really a gross oversimplification of the roles and interplay of the facts, law, perception, science and time, but the point I wanted to make before concluding is that those are essential components to every DUI case (and really every kind of case), and it is important that the lawyer understand how to use them advantageously.
At the end of the day, you pay a DUI lawyer to provide the very best results in your case – not anybody else’s. You want the most lenient outcome you can get, from beating the case, if possible, to the fewest negative consequences in any case that cannot be “knocked out.” You want to get the best bang for your buck. You don’t want to pay any more than you have to, but you certainly don’t want to pay for junk, either. What should you pay? It is my hope that this series has given you the tools to find the answer to that question, as well as given you a few other things to think about as you consider your options, as well.
Ultimately, if you’re looking to hire a lawyer, and you follow my advice, you’ll be calling around. You can reach a live person in my office who can answer your questions right when call, Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 5:00, at (586) 465-1980.