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Paying a criminal defense lawyer

24th March 2021 Print

If you were charged with a crime, you might need to hire a criminal defense attorney. But you’re probably wondering how much it’ll cost and how you’ll pay. We have the information you need below and remember that you can always talk to a criminal defense lawyer to learn more about your options. 

Factors That Affect Legal Costs

Your criminal defense attorney costs will vary depending on several factors: 

- How complicated the case is: Most lawyers cost more for cases involving felonies than misdemeanors. Felonies have harsher penalties and usually require more time, court appearances, and investigation. 

- Experience: Less experienced criminal defense attorneys have lower fees than experienced ones. Be careful if you see a low hourly rate because it could mislead you. A highly experienced lawyer with a higher rate could resolve your case faster than a new attorney with a low rate. 

- Location: Attorneys cost more in some parts of the country than in others. 

Because of these factors, it’s hard to say what a ‘standard’ criminal defense legal fee is. A recent Consumer Reports survey found that the median legal fee in criminal cases was approximately $1,500. However, many of these cases may have only involved a consultation or one court appearance, so you could pay much more. 

For instance, if you’re charged with a misdemeanor, and it goes to trial, don’t be shocked if you pay up to $3,000. The attorney may want an advance of $2,000 or so and $1,000 per day if the case involves a felony. And most criminal defense lawyers want most of their fees paid in advance. 

Hourly Billing

Clients who pay by the hour are paying for the total time the lawyer spends on the case, such as $100 per hour. You also may need to pay for legal expenses, such as fees for copying, subpoenas, and more. From your point of view, there are advantages and disadvantages to billing by the hour: 

- Advantage: If you pay per hour, you will benefit if your case is resolved quickly. 

- Disadvantage: If the case is complicated, it could get expensive. Also, hourly rates give the attorney an incentive to spend more time on the case than necessary.

The good news is a skilled defense lawyer usually knows about how many hours a case will take. You shouldn’t agree to an hourly rate without receiving a good-faith estimate of how many hours the case will take. 

Case Billing

Some defense attorneys charge by the case. For instance, your attorney might set a $1,500 rate for a drunk driving case. This fee won’t change, no matter if the attorney spends one hour or 20 on your case. As with an hourly rate, this approach has positives and negatives: 

- Advantage: You know exactly what you’re going to pay. The lawyer is on the hook if the case takes much longer than he thought. 

- Disadvantage: You could feel that you paid too much if the case is resolved in a day. Also, the fee could only cover the pretrial portion; if it goes to trial, you may have to pay much more. 


No matter if your lawyer bills by the hour or by case, they usually want you to fork over a retainer fee upfront. 

For example, if your attorney bills you at $100 per hour, you might have to pay for 20 hours upfront, or $2,000. Your attorney should give you regular statements that indicate how much time they’ve spent, what they did, and how much of your retainer remains. 

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how a defense attorney may charge you, so you better prepare financially for what’s ahead.