How much Should you pay a Lawyer for a DUI? – Part 1

How much should you pay for a lawyer in a Detroit-area (meaning anywhere in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb County) DUI case? What should you pay, without getting ripped off, or lowballed into second-rate services, for a DUI charge? Perhaps the biggest question is what are you paying for? Isn’t it true that the more you pay, the better quality lawyer you get? Or, is it true that in many DUI cases, you get the essentially the same service no matter what you pay, so anything more than a step or two above public defender is a waste of money? And, above all else, why are lawyers so secretive about what they charge? After all, you can get a quote for a facelift online, but good luck trying to find out what a lawyer charges the same way. This long (4-part) article will address these and other important, related issues.

query cost 1.2.jpgTo start, I’ll answer that last question first: I list what I charge all over my site and this blog. I can’t answer why anyone else doesn’t, but I can point out that my reason for doing so has everything with the way I like to be treated as a client or customer myself: I have no interest in dealing with any operation that treats something as essential as price like it’s a big secret. Seriously? It’s hard to even untangle this mess. First off, why would anyone not have and publish a set price, or at least a range of prices? The cynical answer is because there is no set price, and there is some support for that: I recall a conversation I had with a tax lawyer some years ago. He is very successful, and as we were talking shop, he told me that the fee he quotes in each case is determined after he “sizes up” the caller. He explained that he will, on the pretense of getting some background information, as the caller where he or she works, and how long the person has been there. Imagine how innocent it sounds when asked like this: “Okay, obviously we want to protect your job and keep this whole mess out of your workplace. What kind of work do you do, and where do you work?” With that information, you can get some idea of what the person makes, and quote the fee based upon what he or she can afford. Someone making $50,000 a year might balk at a fee that wouldn’t be too much for someone making over $100,000 per year.

Then there’s the idea of trying to quote a fee that’s not too much higher than any other lawyer’s, while not being too low, either. The thought there is to not scare anyone away by asking too much, while not, at the same time, undercutting yourself on price. Personally, I find that I have more than enough on my plate handling my client’s legal issues; I have no time, and even less inclination, to play those kinds of games. I set my prices (in some cases, a price range) and stick by them. I am different in this regard because I have no desire to compete with anyone on price, particularly at the low end of the price scale. As we’ll see, you can certainly overpay for a lawyer, but you’ll never get anything worthwhile from a lawyer who values the quality of his or her services based upon low price. Lowball is lowball, and cut rate prices invariably mean cut-rate services. It’s one thing to think what you do is worth a lot (maybe too much) money, but it’s quite another if your best self-assessment is nothing more than cheap.

I cringe when someone tells me they paid some lawyer who is NOT a DUI lawyer big bucks to handle a previous DUI case. These revelations always come as part of an explanation that things didn’t turn out so well, or at least not nearly as well as hoped, given the dollar amount involved. Can you imagine someone saying that he or she paid a highly regarded heart surgeon a huge fee to do a facelift? Sure, the heart surgeon may be worth a lot of money per hour – but only as a heart surgeon. This is a very fundamental point that if often overlooked. A top rate criminal lawyer with a string of high profile acquittals in murder cases probably doesn’t know half as much alcohol metabolization or the reliability (or unreliability) of various chemical testing devices average drunk driving lawyer. He or she may know the ins and outs of police interrogation protocol and DNA testing, but in a DUI, we’re looking to things like probable cause for a traffic stop and field sobriety testing.

By contrast, a bargain lawyer, just like a court-appointed lawyer, has no time, and even less incentive, to learn the nuances of DUI law and how to use facts, perception, science and time to his or her advantage. The whole point to the bargain flat-rate legal fee is to sign up a case, run to court, and get it wrapped up as soon as possible. Ditto for a court appointment. While the whole point of this article is help the reader find the sweet spot in terms of DUI legal fees, if I was facing a DUI, knowing what I know, I would much rather pay way too much but still get good (if not overpriced) representation, than save a load of money and get sold down the river. While you won’t get what you paid for when you pay too much and hire some overpriced lawyer, you will NEVER get what you didn’t pay for when you hire the discount operator.

For all the blabbing lawyers can do about DUI and experience and fees and past accomplishments, the cold, hard facts tell the real story. Before you get all caught up in planning (and paying for) the trial of the century, take a moment to digest this: The Michigan State Police are required, by law, to do an annual audit of what happens in every alcohol and DUI arrest in the State of Michigan. Every single arrest, and every single charge in every single court is tracked. Forget all the hype you read on some lawyer’s website (mine included) and check this out for yourself. Scroll down, toward the bottom, for the “all courts” summary. In 2013, the last year for which numbers are available, there were 49,333 alcohol and DUI related arrests. Out of ALL OF THOSE, a grand total of 67 cases went to trail and resulted in acquittal (meaning a “not guilty” verdict). That means that .135% (just over one-eighth of one percent) of all those cases won after trial. Put another way, 99.87 (or 99.9%, if you round) of all those arrests were not vindicated through trial.

Nor was this just a bad year. In fact, the year before, in 2012, things were even worse. There were 52,770 alcohol and DUI related arrests. Out of all of those, 41 people were found “not guilty” at trial. That equals .079% (just under one-twelfth of one percent). Add that together, and in the last 2 years, of the 102,103 alcohol and DUI-related arrests in the state of Michigan, 108 people went to trial and got off. That’s just over one-tenth of one percent, or .11. Put another way, whatever else happened to the other 99.89% of those arrested, none of them heard the magic words “not guilty.”

The take-away here is stunning. Can the evidence in your case be botched or weak enough, or is it otherwise possible that you have been demonstrably falsely accused of a DUI so that you can go to trial and win? Sure. But given the odds, you have to be realistic about your chances. Not to be funny about it, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in the middle of a lucky streak to begin with. Hoping that you come out as part of the lucky .11% is one thing; banking on it, with your own money, is quite another. I must admit, however, that I am fascinated by the fact that people will step up and pay, time after time, to buy into hope, and what they want to hear, rather than ponder what they need to hear. Every exercise device and skin-tightening cream sold on TV tells the consumer exactly what he or she wants to hear. Are you really overweight? Well, buy this ab wheel, and in no time you’ll be slim and beautiful! Do you look old and wrinkly? Try this miracle cream and your face will be so tight and youthful that you’ll look 20 years’ younger (if not like a cat!). Do you need money? Buy this program and you can flip houses and be rich in no time!

Winning by trial is simply not a likely outcome. However – and this is a huge HOWEVER – those very same statistics also prove that getting the case knocked out by challenging the evidence is a very real possibility. This, folks, is the kind of stuff for which you pay a good DUI lawyer. Beating a DUI case is very possible, just not at the expensive end of a full-blown trial…

In 2013, of the 49,333 arrests, Judges threw 5594 of those cases out of court. Those are called “merit dismissals.” In 2012, of the 52,770 arrests, there were 6906 merit dismissals. Forget the calculators here because it’s obvious that in each year, the dismissal rate was slightly above 10%. Those are good odds. Here’s the thing about each and every case that gets thrown out of court: The case didn’t dismiss itself. These are “merit dismissals” because some hard-working and smart lawyer dug around and examined the evidence and then successfully challenged it. You don’t get that kind of service with the bargain lawyer. It’s doubtful he or she even knows what to look for. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the way overpriced operation has to justify its fees, so it routinely challenges everything to burn up the clock. The upshot there is one of lost credibility. That constantly barking voice becomes part of the general background noise and becomes as indistinct as Charlie Brown’s teacher (the voice that is really a trombone and just goes “wah wah wah wah wah wah”).

The best answer to what you should pay, and what you should pay for, lies in the middle. In my practice, I charge for extra work, but I don’t do extra work unless it is likely to pay off. If I challenge something in court, you can be damn sure the Judge knows there is something to it. I don’t hold frivolous hearings because I don’t want to be seen as a money-grubbing blockhead who fights everything to justify his fee. By the same token, I have no desire to be seen as a lightweight who just rolls over and doesn’t fight, either. Instead, I want to be respected as an honest and strong lawyer who stands up for his clients and does an excellent and intelligent job.

Consider this scenario about how lawyers charge for the various kinds of DUI offenses: A “High BAC charge” can ONLY be made in a 1st offense DUI case. You could blow the highest score on record, but if it’s your 2nd or 3rd DUI, you cannot be charged with a High BAC crime. Thus, “High BAC” also means “1st offense.” Of course, it is a more serious 1st offense, but it is a 1st offense, nonetheless. I don’t have a separate fee for High BAC cases because I treat them for what they are: 1st offense charges.

Because I spend all day, every day, dealing with DUI issues, I know full well that the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office has a set policy forbidding any kind of plea bargain in a High BAC case. This, of course, really emphasizes the need to critically examine the evidence and challenge the case, if possible. However, absent a solid legal challenge, or at least showing the prosecutor the grounds for a meritorious challenge, any High BAC charge authorized by the Oakland County Prosecutor (rather than by a municipality, like the cities of Berkley or Royal Oak, for example; they can still negotiate) will NOT be bargained down. If you just hired a lawyer who charges more for a High BAC than he or she does for a regular 1st offense OWI for a case in an Oakland County municipality without its own High BAC ordinance, you wasted that extra money, unless your attorney finds a way to beat the case. Problem is, you may have to pay more for that extra work, anyway. And this isn’t even the half of it…

This is as good a place as any to stop. We’ll pick up, in part 2, right here, in the middle of High BAC cases and take a look at the larger area of legal fees, do some comparisons, and see why I think my method is the best.

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