Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tales From The Big Legal Fee

The other day some of the comments on my post on my other blog about the Las Vegas Federal Courthouse shooting were posted on another blog, and led to this comment:

"But yet, Brian would defend this person if the price was right! Spare us Brian......"

I don't know who wrote this. It's no one who knows me well, just a person that judges from afar. These people don't bother me, they entertain me - those who assume, without asking.

I remember having a high profile case 7 years ago. It was on the news almost daily. It was in the New York Times. It was everywhere. One day, walking into the courthouse, a fellow lawyer said "wow Brian, you sure are milking the fees in this case." My response - "I was appointed."

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to recall the time, (and possibly give some pause to a young lawyer out there, when I lost a really big fee.

It was 6 years ago. I was representing someone under investigation. He paid me a small retainer to communicate with the prosecutor during the investigation and do all the other things criminal defense lawyers do during investigations.

Then the arrest came. The bond was over 2 million dollars. A quick conversation with the prosecutor, and it was lowered to 1 million dollars. The only hold up was that the prosecutor wanted proof the bond money was clean. This would take a little time - gathering bank statements and other documents.

I quoted a mid six figure fee. It was the biggest fee I had ever quoted.

The client hemmed and hawed, and then offered to pay me a substantial amount of money for the bond work, the fee for the case to be solidified after he was released.

I received half of the substantial amount of the fee for the bond work, and was told I would receive the other half "next week."

The bond work was all I could do. I dropped everything. My entire office was working every minute of every day to get all the documents together. I was getting ready to head out of town for the annual criminal defense conference, and everything was moving along.

I left for the conference and my cell phone rang constantly from 7:30 a.m. throughout the day. It was the prosecutor, the family, my office, the family, the family, and the family. When was he getting out?

Then I got the call - the prosecutor was told that my client had a substantial amount of funds in an offshore account. My client denied this, but the prosecutor, apologetic, revoked the bond offer. This was on a Friday. We would now go to court and have the judge set bond. The judge wouldn't hear the case Monday, it would be days before we could get a hearing.

Regardless that there was nothing that could be done on the weekend. The family continued to call, Saturday and Sunday, throughout the day, beginning with my wake up call. I took every call, missing almost all of the conference.

When I came back home, I ran to the jail to see my client. Looking over the sign-in book, I saw another criminal defense lawyer had been to see him. I asked him what this was about, and he told me his family sent this (very good) lawyer to see him. I told him I would get him a bond hearing as soon as possible. He was not happy I went out of town over the weekend.

I called the other lawyer and was told I was probably out. The client's uncle called and told me the same within the hour. He asked me for money back, and got an earful.

I went back to my office and told everyone I was out.

They were thrilled.

They told me they put off other clients, other work, and like me, were also bombarded with nasty calls throughout the day. They told me I was not pleasant over the past week or so, and they wanted to get back to our normal way of doing things.

I was still devastated over losing the client, and yes, the big fee.

I went home and told my wife. She was equally as happy.

It's been six years since I lost that "big fee," and guess what, the case is still going on, and the big fee would have been a big loss by now.

The point is obvious - big fees look nice from afar, and they are when you have a good client and good case. But never forget that when someone pays you a large amount of money, sometimes they believe they own you. If you're OK with that, then this post is meaningless to you.

My point is that taking a case shouldn't ever be just about the fee, and sometimes, the best case, is the case you don't get or the one you choose not to take.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com



KC Law said...

You are right, of course. However, when trying to build a practice, it sure is hard to walk away from the big fee. I would also reemphasize that big fees often come with lengthy trials, which means time taken away from taking on new clients and the associated fees.

Just a guy who tries cases said...

I agree with you and "KC Law". Sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

Pamela J. Lakatos said...

It seems like most of us who have practiced criminal law for any length of time have a story like this.
I, too, decided that I would never again sign on to represent anyone who felt that "for what I am paying, I own you".

Have never regretted it.

My friends who work for massive civil firms tell me that these type of clients are their bread and butter and that you just deal with it. That is my idea of hell.

Rick Horowitz said...

Even more unsettling are the clients who think the $2500 fee for their misdemeanor case entitles them to a call or two for updates every hour.