I just read two posts about attorney fees and alternative billing methods. Norm Pattis started it off with Flat Fees, Black Holes and the Value of Chaos. Jamison Koehler followed up with Flat Fees Versus Hourly Rates in a Criminal Case. Both articles are excellent and I recommend that you read them yourself.
Attorney fees are a necessary part of representing clients. Most clients understand this and are willing to pay for representation. There are exceptions of course, and I leave that topic for my friend Brian Tannebaum. The question remains though on which method is better: by the hour or a flat fee? There are good arguments for both.
Most lawyers I know charge a flat fee in criminal defense cases. That’s how we do it at my office. I like this method because it’s simple and it avoids any potential misunderstanding with the client. When the client hires me, he or she knows what the fee is for that case. No more and no less. I’ve never had a client ask me how much time or how many hours I would devote to the case. The answer would be as much as it takes.
Charging by the hour might sound attractive to a potential client. Most defendants probably have no idea how long it takes to properly defend a case. I’ve heard people comment that the case was simple because it didn’t take long. They don’t see or know about the “hidden hours” Norm writes about.
Charging by the hour might also sound attractive to the lawyer. It is a way to get paid for “extra” time spent on the case because of the client. Some clients want “hand holding” during their case. They will call everyday and ask you to explain the same thing again. Some clients surf the internet. They want you to explain in detail why the minority opinion they read from some other state court doesn’t apply to their case. Some clients may want the investigation to go in a direction the lawyer sees as useless. If the client wants to pay for these extra services, then an hourly fee agreement takes care of the situation.
The hourly fee arrangement has its problems. There is the additional accounting time required to manage a bill. This is further complicated if you have different rates for different aspects of the case. First, what is the hourly rate? Should it be the same for waiting in court for your case to be called as it is for arguing a simple motion? How about a complicated motion or the actual trial? Travel time? For the lawyer, time spent on the case is time taken away from another client’s case. In other words, time is money. A potential client may see it differently. It certainly presents another issue that a client may balk at when it’s time to pay the bill.
The attorney client relationship has enough dynamics. Money shouldn’t complicate it.