Tuesday, May 22, 2007

COURT APPOINTED FEES: Market Rate or Garage Sale?

The other day, I was faxed a great deal on a State Jail Felony. The person was clearly guilty and I saw no legal issues to contest. I am going to plead her out on the first setting and receive the approved fee. What is that worth. The going rate is $350 per case. Between the letter I sent, visitation with the client, reviewing the offense report, negotiating a bit more (or calling the SHORT Program), and then the plea, I have spent an amount of time that many may call reasonable in relation to the fee.

Is that where the reasonableness ends?

I handle a variety of 3rd and 2nd degree Felonies where there is no indictment for generally 2-4 settings, victims have to be notified, we have to handwrite the offense reports, the bus doesn't come in, taped statements have to be located, lab reports ordered etc., etc., etc. These cases can take anywhere from 2-5 months to resolve, in part, because of delays beyond my control. Of course, that is assuming that the case is resolved with a plea. Now the question-Is THAT reasonable? $350 for THIS plea? When you do the math, assuming 15 hours were expended (that's conservative), its the equivalent wage of some contruction workers.

It gets even more interesting.

First Degree Felonies often involve additional time-consuming factors. The cases often involve multiple victims, much more difficult clients, habitual offenders, more time in handwriting those offense reports, more egregious circumstances, appointments to see pictures, etc., and worse yet, the tremendous amount of time expended before your client accepts a deal the day of trial. These First Degree clients are usually the ones who know the system and will milk the clock any way they can. And of course, the Prosecutor doesn't help when you work ALL WEEKEND on your case, only to have a deal offered the day of trial your client would have accepted months before. Granted, some of our judges will recognize this and add a bonus. But in the end, many of these cases monopolize our time at the expense of our other clients that we are compensated the same.

And consider this: Is a UUMV or POCS trial comparable to a trial of an Aggravated Assault, Murder, or Habitual offender? These latter cases often involve experts, other specialized knowledge, intense investigation involving interviews, and many sleepless nights. Is it reasonable to pay the same trial rate for these cases? And shouldn't we be paid for the differences in preparation and discovery?

I think it is time to propose a more graduated scale of compensation. This is not to say it takes less talent to plea or try a State Jail case versus a First Degree case, but as lawyers we offer our time and expertise to our clients. Should we be paid more when a case involves more expertise and more time? I would hope so.

How about if we paid State Jail Felonies fairly, but increased the 3rd & 2nd Degree cases to a higher rate, and the First Degree cases a bit higher yet. Would that make sense? I know some of my colleagues have dropped off the A list because the cases were simply not worth it in time and compensation. As for trial, its time to recognize the difference in cases and preparation. There's no escaping the fact that some of the serious cases take a toll on the physical and mental health of our colleagues, involve much more expertise, and have greater stakes to the client. Most would agree that these cases deserve more compensation.

Others will conclude that I write this in self interest. I'm not. The lists fluctuate, change, and evolve. A sliding scale may create incentive to hone skills and strive for improvement. I hope so. We're all worth our time.


Anonymous said...

More importantly, the clients desire an attorey who is compensated for his or her time. It makes a difference. When you are paid meager wages, you have to take on more cases to make ends meet. More cases mean less time to work on any given case. People hire an attorney for good reasons. They want the best representation and the majority of your time to help them obtain the best results. Unfortunately, everyone can't hire an attorney. As far as I'm concerned, these low wages are meant to deprive defendants of any meaningful representation. I'm thankful for people like you who remain on the "A" list. I encourage more quality attorneys to join, but I definitely understand why they don't. We are not social workers.

Stephen Gustitis said...

In Brazos County the county commissioners approved a court-appointed fee schedule for 3g offenses, separate from non-3g crimes. A 3g plea is worth $750, where a non-3g plea is only $400. Trial fees for each class are also different. Frankly, I enjoy the 3g work - it gives me more opportunity to use experts, investigators, etc., while being more financially rewarding. You ought to approach the judges in your county and ask them to see what Brazos County is doing. Good luck.