If you are in the unfortunate situation where you need to hire a New Jersey criminal defense attorney, it is important that you understand the legal fee arrangement.
In a New Jersey criminal case, a lawyer is allowed to charge a reasonable hourly rate, or a reasonable flat fee, or a combination of the two (each is explained in more detail below). Clients should first understand that an attorney in New Jersey is completely prohibited from charging any kind of contingency fee in a criminal case. For example, you cannot hire a lawyer and pay him a certain fee up front, and promise to give him more money if you win at trial or if the lawyer gets the charges dropped. So do not be offended if you consult with a criminal lawyer and he/she doesn’t agree to such an arrangement – it is simply not allowed.
Before explaining the different types of allowable fee arrangements, potential clients should also understand that the arrangement must be stated in a signed retainer agreement (the preferable method), or at least confirmed in a letter. If you have questions about the fee arrangement, the first place to look is at the retainer agreement. The agreement would not only state what the fees are, but also other relevant information, like when fees are due.
Cases that are taken on a pure flat fee basis are usually the easiest fee arrangements to understand. The retainer will state what the flat fee amount is, and what the flat fee covers. For very small cases, clients are sometimes offered a single flat fee for the entire case. Other times, the retainer may state that there is an initial flat fee which covers everything up to a certain point, and then another flat fee to cover the rest of the case. For example, the attorney may charge a certain fee up front and then a second fee, due in advance, if the client wants a trial.
When evaluating a criminal defense attorney, potential clients should be mindful that some attorneys charge a higher flat fee when the client is accused of a more serious crime. At Raff & Raff, we never do this – all cases that require approximately the same amount of work are charged the same flat fee, regardless of the severity of the charges.
For cases that are taken on a pure hourly rate basis, the retainer will state what the hourly rate is, and a client should understand the rate before retaining the attorney. At the start of the case, the client will typically have to give the lawyer a retainer fee – a lump sum of money that will be held in the attorney’s trust account. As legal fees accrue, the attorney will take money from the trust account to pay himself. Clients should expect to receive regular bills showing the time spent by the attorney, and the charges, and how much is left of the retainer. If the retainer is running low (or if the attorney expects that it may run out in the near future because a large amount of legal work needs to be done), then the client will have to make another deposit.
Clients should be mindful that a criminal attorney will be “on the clock” whenever they are working on your case. This includes phone calls and client meetings with the lawyer. Therefore, if you would like to have a lengthy phone conversation or meeting with your criminal defense attorney, you should not be surprised when you see these conversations on your bill.
A common type of fee arrangement in most criminal cases is a combination of flat fees and hourly billing. For example, the early stages of many criminal cases will require 3-4 appearances in Superior Court, a review of the evidence, client meetings, and some discussions with the prosecutor. At that point the case has either resolved by plea bargain or by the prosecutor dropping charges, or it has not resolved at all. At Raff & Raff, we typically charge a flat fee for this early portion of the case. If the case does not resolve, then it is referred to a grand jury for indictment. Once indicted, a criminal defendant can expect that there will be substantial amounts of legal work going forward, including a trial in some cases. Due to the fact that the number of attorney hours post-indictment is often hard to predict, most defense attorneys, including this firm, will require a retainer and switch to hourly rate billing. Again, this should be clearly stated in the original retainer agreement.
In sum, it is very important that a client understand the different fee options in a criminal defense case. When evaluating a criminal attorney, a client should leave the initial meeting knowing how much they should expect to be charged and when payments are due. And if you are ever in the unfortunate situation where you need to hire a criminal defense attorney in New Jersey, we hope that you will contact us for a 100% free consultation.