Why is trial so expensive? Is my lawyer just pocketing tens of thousands of dollars at my expense?
When people hear about how expensive a trial costs, let alone a high profile trial, they are often absolutely shocked. A high profile murder case is going to run you at least $100,000. At least. Most clients don't have this type of case, but even a felony drug distribution case will likely run you at least $30,000. This blog post is meant to explain how the fee for a trial is computed to give you more comfort that the fee being charged is reasonable. Short answer: no, the lawyer is most definitely not pocketing this entire fee.
Trial is time consuming.
There are many factors that go into calculating the fee for any given trial. One factor that is always taken into account is the length of time that trial is expected to take. The shortest jury trials usually last three to five days, including jury selection and jury deliberations. In most courtrooms, judges have to take into account court hours and breaks for jurors.
Writing good pre-trial motions is a very technical and advanced skill.
Before you ever step foot in a courtroom, attorneys have to thoroughly prepare for trial. The attorney must review every document, including every note, every email, the police report, any videos, and any recorded statement. This can take many, many months. The attorney uses his or her pre-trial time to write and argue motions in limine (a request in writing to the judge to exclude certain evidence, testimony, or witnesses), proposed voir dire questions (questions to the jury panel while the jury is being selected), and to prepare exhibit and witness lists. All of these tasks take a considerable amount of time and expertise to do proficiently. A lot of people scoff when they hear that an attorney bills up to $500 an hour for trial work, but law school is three extra years of school after receiving a Bachelor's degree and most attorneys graduate law school with at least $100,000 worth of student loans. Attorneys spend years perfecting their craft in order to be able to even know what arguments to make for their clients both before and during a trial. There is a misconception that lawyers are sneaky individuals who charge exorbitant fees, know some "secret" about how to "beat the system" and just walk into a courtroom, say a bunch of stuff, and the case is decided in their clients' favor. This could not be further from the truth. Lawyers work up to 15 hours a day during trial, tirelessly doing tedious legal research and preparing documents, witnesses, and various legal strategies to advocate for their clients.
The attorney is the ringleader of the trial - rounding up witnesses and preparing exhibits is key.
Preparing for trial also includes meetings with the client and other witnesses to prepare them for direct and cross examination. It can also include meeting with the prosecutor to discuss stipulations as to the admissibility of evidence or stipulations as to certain evidence or witness testimony.
The attorney may also need to pay for subpoenaing witnesses to come testify at trial. They are the ones responsible for scheduling and navigating the witness' work schedules and logistics. When preparing for trial, it is extremely common for a criminal defense attorney to employ the assistance of an experienced private investigator. A lot of private investigators, especially the ones who have been in the industry for many years bill almost as much an hour as a criminal defense attorney. This comes out of the trial fee as well and is absolutely not something you want to skimp on. In that same regard, expert witnesses are often employed to review the evidence and offer expert testimony at trial, especially if the case involves complicated forensics or DNA evidence. Many experts, like private investigators, bill at at least $350 per hour for their services. That being said, I've seen both investigators and expert witnesses win trials. They are often critically important members of the defense trial team.
Attorneys usually prepare exhibits that help the jury understand the evidence - most of the time, this includes a PowerPoint presentation that can take hours to perfect.
Other clients take a backseat when the attorney is in trial.
If you've ever been to court for any reason, then you know how many hours you can spend just waiting. Waiting to get started, waiting for a verdict, waiting for the jury to deliberate. Time is money, especially for attorneys. When a case is going to trial, all the attorneys' other cases take a backseat. The client who is in trial at the given moment is the attorney's #1 priority, as they should be. This means that the attorney's work on other cases is piling up and their other clients' calls are going unreturned since the attorney is in court all day, every day until the trial ends. The attorney is also unable to meet with new clients or do normal marketing, so they are taking a financial hit there as well.
Trial is a huge undertaking for all involved and the gravity of trial is to be taken seriously. It is the single chance that an attorney has to put together all the evidence and merge it into a simple, straightforward presentation to the jury that takes into account the nuances of the evidence and that persuades the jury to agree with the defense's point of view. The result of a trial can be the difference between a client spending years in prison with a criminal conviction that will affect them for the rest of their life and the client getting an acquittal and being free to live their life.
If you have questions about your case and want to talk about your options, call us today for a free consultation.