Friday, November 16, 2012

Why I charge a trial fee

As everyone should know by now I'm a DUI Lawyer in Seattle, WA.  A big part of practice is litigating jury trials.  In fact in my career I have litigated over 100 jury trials to verdict which is a fair amount for someone my age.  There are two reasons why I have done so many.  First in a DUI case if the Prosecutor is not willing to offer a deal and they just want a client to plead guilty as charged.  Well we know what will already happen if the client is found guilty, so they have nothing to lose if they go to trial because 99% of the time they will get the exact sentence the Prosecutor wanted in the first place.  The second reason is because I actually enjoy trial work.  A big part of my job is driving to different courts, sitting in court for hours waiting for a case to be called, negotiating with Prosecutors, and doing DOL hearings.  In all honestly that is pretty mind numbing work, so litigating a jury trial is a welcome break, and it is kind of fun.  

So when I first opened my practice I used to charge a flat fee on a DUI case because I didn't want to discourage my clients from going to trial.  In other words my fee covered every step of the legal process except for appeals.  I'm not an appellate attorney, and that style of law does not appeal to me (no pun intended).  So my fee would cover the arraignment, pretrial hearings, negotiating with the Prosecutor, motion hearings, and the jury or bench trial.

After two years I stopped charging a flat fee for everything, and I started to charge a fee for everything up to the point of a jury trial.  Then if the case were to go that far I would charge an additional "trial fee" for the litigation of the jury trial.

The reason I bring this up is because lately I have read a few blogs by some other DUI Lawyers that imply this particular fee structure is a bad thing.  And the Seattle DUI Lawyers that do this do not want to litigate a jury trial and by charging an extra fee that are effectively holding their client hostage, and if the client cannot pay then they would be forced to plead guilty.  These blogs then go on to say that a flat fee is the way to go because the client will not be forced to decide whether to pay more for exercising a constitutional right they have.

To be honest I used to feel that way.  When I first opening my practice I didn't want my clients thinking this exact same way.  I didn't want them to feel like they had to choose between paying me more or pleading guilty.  But like I said after two years I stopped doing this.  Why do you ask?

Well it is pretty simple.  I found that I was constantly refunding my clients money.  There were times where I would charge a flat fee, but then I would only go to court 2-3 times.  I would be able to negotiate a deal with the Prosecutor that my client was happy with and I didn't spend a lot of time on the case.  In those situations I didn't feel comfortable taking all the money the client paid me, so I would refund them a few thousand dollars.  I didn't think it was fair to charge them the same amount as a client that I spent 80 hours, litigated a trial through verdict, and went to court two dozen times on their behalf.

You can imagine not only the confusion but the issues this created.  Constantly trying to figure out what would be fair and then cut my client a check based on that.  So I decided that I would charge less in those cases that didn't go to trial, and charge a little more if they went.

I'm sure there are many DUI Attorneys out there that probably tell potential clients that myself and other attorneys that do this are ripping them off, afraid to go to trial, or just want the client to plead guilty and then move on.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  In fact I would venture to say that any attorney that says that probably doesn't have the trial experience I do, so it is kind of ironic they would say such a thing when my entire practice is devoted 100% to litigation and I think my track record of jury trials speak for itself.

In addition to that my fee has not risen from what I originally charged.  I simply took the original flat fee and subtracted the trial fee.  Now when I enter into a fee agreement there are two fees.  The first is the flat fee for representation on the criminal matter up to the point of a jury trial.  The second is the trial fee that is only collected if a jury trial is litigated.  If say for example the case is set for trial, and then the Prosecutor offers a plea deal at the last minute then no trial fee will be collected.

All of my fees are always completely spelled out in the fee agreement.  I would never try and deceive a client or nickel and dime them for money.  Every potential client that I speak with about proposed fees I tell them about the trial fee and the reasons for it.  And I'm willing to bet my fee including a trial fee is the same as those DUI Attorneys that are putting down the use of a trial fee.

So my question is why should a client who only has to go to court 2 or 3 times before getting offered a plea deal they are happy with be charged the same as a client that goes to court 2 dozen times and has to sit through a 3 day DUI jury trial.  If you have any thoughts feel free to leave a comment.  Remember I'm not bagging on this type of fee structure, I used to structure my contracts like that.  But I found for my practice the additional trial fee works best, and I have never had a client say otherwise or express any issues with it.

Matthew Leyba is a DUI lawyer in Seattle, WA.  His practice focuses on representing those accused of DUI and other serious traffic offenses.  If you have been arrested for a DUI in the Seattle area, or Western WA contact our offices for a free 60 minute consultation.  

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