Tuesday, May 31, 2011

PrePaid Legal Services

Prepaid legal service is a generic term for "legal insurance" and there are several companies that offer plans. However they are variations of the company that started the concept named Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. located in Ada, OK. Essentially, it's insurance and your "benefit" is legal service. You pay a monthly membership fee and you purportedly have unlimited access to an attorney for your legal questions, traffic ticket representation, will preparation, and other benefits. Here's the problem with prepaid legal services.

I got a call last week from a prepaid legal service provider looking for a criminal lawyer in Bryan/College Station to represent one of their insureds. The insured was a parent whose Texas A&M Aggie got into trouble with local police for a DWI breath test case. The provider asked whether I'd be interested in taking the case for their stated maximum benefit of $1,500.00. I asked whether they offered an additional benefit if I tried the case. Nope.

I told this guy his legal insurance sucked. The only lawyers in town who might take a DWI breath test case for $1,500.00 would be either starving or unqualified. I hadn't seen any starving lawyers at the courthouse lately, so I figured the poor lady who paid the insurance premiums wasn't getting the quality benefit she assumed (I suppose) she would receive.

The moral? Beware of prepaid legal services. You might not be getting what you paid for.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Criminal Lawyer's Flat Fee

Folks often wonder why I charge so much for my legal services. Why aren't legal fees more affordable, they wonder. You're killing me, they say. The truth is, when compared to fees charged by lawyers in civil firms with comparable experience, my fees are reasonably priced. What's more, my fees are predictable because I charge by the case. That is, I charge a flat, or fixed, fee. The flat fee is probably the best way for criminal defense lawyers to make quality legal fees affordable to the paying public. And the flat fee is simply that . . . a fixed fee as compared to an hourly fee, which is more unpredictable. So how does the flat fee make legal services more affordable to the client? Well, let's take a look at how an hourly fee might stack up against, let's say, a $4,500.00 flat fee for services in a typical DWI refusal case.

On a simple DWI an attorney will, at least, defend the administrative license revocation (ALR) hearing and appear at several court dates – let’s assume three court appearances, which in my experience is on the low end. Assume with travel time and waiting time in court, each court appearance is a half hour. For the ALR, first we must request the hearing, then request the discovery, then review the discovery, then go to a hearing. Let’s just assume it’s 2.0 hours for all of that. Initial interview? Let’s assume an hour. Watching the video with the client will be another hour for purposes of our hypothetical. In all, we have about 4 hours invested.

But what if there were a possible suppression issue needing a couple hours of research? Add two hours. That gets us to six. And if we actually litigate the motion to suppress, add another two hours. That gets us to eight. What if we must make five total court appearances? Now we are at 10 hours invested. Believe me, these time estimates are on the low end of reasonable. If any experienced criminal lawyer actually counted their hours in a case they'd be surprised how quickly the time adds up.

Let's build on the hypothetical. Let’s assume a board certified criminal lawyer with 15 or so years’ experience. She wants $350 per hour. Let’s assume also the more reasonable scenario of the time counted above, plus the modest preparation time of one hour out-of-court per one hour in-court and about four hours invested into the suppression issue. At $350 dollars per hour, that makes about 15 hours or so, (if my math is correct) or a total bill for fees of $5,250.00. This does not include the lawyer's out-of-pocket costs for online research, etc., which are typically absorbed by the lawyer and not charged out to the client.

So, when comparing the hypothetical hourly fee against the $4,500.00 flat fee, we see the flat fee is a bargain. Beyond this, in many cases the criminal lawyer will include any trial fee within their flat fee, which makes the flat fee all the more economical for clients.

Consequently, when folks ask me why I'm killing them with fees, I trust they see their advantage when paying a predictable, reasonable, and yes, affordable attorney fee to obtain the best defense against their criminal charges.

I Figure It's Time for Me To Start Playing Ball

In the 1986 sports movie classic, Hoosiers, the town's star player, Jimmy Chitwood, is sitting out the basketball season on the sidelines. During a town meeting to vote on the fate of new coach, Norman Dale, Jimmy walks into the meeting and announces he has something to say. After Jimmy is given the floor he proclaims that "I don't know if it'll make any change, but I figured it's time for me to start playing ball." It's been almost a year now since my last blog post. I don't know if it'll change anything, but I figure it's time for me to start playing ball again, too. I'm working on my next post . . . a little something about legal fees. I hope you'll visit again.