How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
If you find yourself charged with a crime, seeking expert legal counsel is essential. But it isn’t free.
Understanding how criminal defense attorneys bill for their time and how much they charge can help you estimate the potential costs of legal representation.
How a criminal defense attorney charges their client varies. Criminal lawyers use several common charging models:
Some criminal defense attorneys charge clients by the hour, although the client may have to pay additional costs, such as copying expenses.
Hourly billing can be advantageous if your case concludes quickly because you'll only pay for the hours you actually need. However, these arrangements can become very expensive if your case takes significantly longer than anticipated.
Alternatively, a criminal defense lawyer may charge a flat fee per case. Therefore, you'll know exactly how much your legal fees will cost from the outset, and your attorney can't change the price if the case becomes unexpectedly time-consuming or complex.
However, checking what a fixed fee includes is essential, as many lawyers bill for the pretrial phase and trial separately. You may also pay more if your case concludes faster than expected.
Usually, criminal defense attorneys expect an upfront payment — known as a retainer — before they start working on the case. This requirement usually applies whether they bill hourly or charge fixed fees.
If your attorney charges by the hour, they'll usually calculate the retainer fee as their hourly rate multiplied by a minimum number of hours. The attorney will then keep track of the hours they work on the case and deduct them from the retainer. You may need to make an additional payment as the balance approaches zero.
Misdemeanors are less serious than felonies and usually have a maximum penalty of 1 year in jail, although the maximum could be up to 3 years in some states. Alternatively, you may receive a fine for a misdemeanor conviction.
As misdemeanor proceedings are generally less time-consuming and complex than felonies, you'll usually pay lower attorney fees. Typically, you can expect to pay between $2,500 and $8,000.
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How much a criminal defense attorney charges for cases involving drug offenses depends partly on whether you receive a felony or misdemeanor charge. Most drug offenses are felonies, although you may be charged with a misdemeanor for possessing very small amounts for personal use. You could pay as little as $900 to $1,500 in legal fees in this situation.
Meanwhile, you could pay significantly more if your case is complex or you committed a serious offense involving the sale of drugs. Potential charges and fees include:
- Drug trafficking: $15,000 to $20,000
- Manufacture of illegal drugs: $20,000 to $30,000
- Forging drug prescriptions: $2,000 to $2,500
Generally, criminal defense attorneys charge by the hour to represent clients accused of felonies, although some may agree to a flat rate. Expect to pay between $100 and $300 per hour. Most attorneys charge a retainer of between $5,000 and $10,000, although you may have to pay over $25,000 if you're charged with a serious felony.
The main factors affecting how much a criminal lawyer costs are the seriousness and complexity of the case. The more time your attorney has to spend working on your case, the more you'll pay. Where you live and your lawyer's expertise and experience can also affect the overall cost.
Jury trials require significant time, resources and expertise from your attorney. You should expect to pay more attorney fees if your case goes to trial instead of reaching a plea bargain.
You may also be liable to pay several other expenses beyond attorney fees as a defendant in a criminal trial. For example, paying for an expert witness to testify in your favor usually costs between $2,000 and $7,000. You may also need to pay to conduct research to help you evidence your defense.
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