Saturday, October 27, 2012

Legal fees: You get what you pay for?

From a defense lawyer’s standpoint, the simplest cases to defend are non-domestic fights.  You know, the good old-fashioned fisticuffs, often taking place in a bar or related setting, and often involving a self-defense claim.  The reason they’re “simple” cases is that they don’t involve complex pretrial or trial issues.  Normally, you simply have some eyewitnesses who testify as to what happened, and each side cross-examines them about their biases, motives, ability to accurately recount what they saw (or what they think they saw), etc.  Then, each side argues about the strength of the evidence, burden of proof, etc.  Unlike other cases, these self-defense cases usually don’t involve lengthy motions to suppress evidence, or time-consuming preparation for expert witnesses, or witness recantations to muddy-up the waters, or complicated “other acts” motions, or complex hearsay issues that can confuse the judge.  In other words, the classic battery case with a self-defense claim is the ideal case for a second-year law student’s trial advocacy course, or even for the new attorney fresh out of law school.  So how did one attorney get $100,000-plus in fees to defend a client in a four-day battery trial stemming from a simple throw-down at a trendy New York bar?

One explanation is that the lawyer (pictured in the second photo of this story) is more business-savvy than he looks, and saw this particular client (himself an Ivy League law school grad) coming a mile a way.  A second explanation is that the client is exaggerating when he said he had to “run up six figures in legal bills in the course of defending himself.”  The reason I suspect this as a possibility is that he also claims to have quit his own high-paying, corporate law job in order “to focus on his trial.”  This is odd given that his testimony, including cross-examination, took all of “approximately half an hour,” as would be expected in a case like this—hardly sufficient justification to resign from a good job.  A third explanation is that the journalist just got it wrong.  A simple bar fight, even when charged as a felony, could run $4,000 to $10,000 in legal fees in the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor.  Even if you triple the high end of that range for New York, you’re talkin’ $30K rather than the reported “six figures.”  Finally, a fourth explanation is that I’m missing something, and there really was something incredibly complex about the case that isn’t obvious from any of the reporting.

In any case, the defendant prevailed on his self-defense claim, but, as he quit his job before trial, he’s now “looking for the right position to make use of the skills he’s developed over the years.”  Hopefully he’ll find it soon, and hopefully any outstanding legal bill isn’t accruing interest in the meantime. 

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