Monday, March 5, 2012

Value vs. Cost: Choosing an Attorney on a Budget

I was watching an old episode of Law and Order: SVU yesterday.  It was one from a few years back that dealt with an adult son of a very well-to-do family who had been accused of raping and murdering a girl from his college.  The son was in an interrogation room at the precinct when, out of nowhere, in swooped his aggressive, high-priced attorney, who had been charged with the task of saving the day for this notable family.  The attorney asked if his client had been charged, and when met with a "no" from Detective Stabler, he scooped up the young man, who had quite the smug grin on his face, and exited the room.


SVU is just a TV show, obviously, but there was a not-so-subtle underlying theme to this scene.  Because this young man's family was well off, he was able to be represented by the best of the best; someone who could come in and clean up his mess (for a hefty fee, of course).  If the suspect had been an average Joe; or worse, outright poor, he would surely have not had the same type of representation, would have been forced to sit there in that room and spill his guts to the detectives, and would have ended up signing the pre-written confession that was probably sitting in the other room for him, right?

The truth is, attorney's charge different amounts for similar service for lots of different reasons, just the same as other business do.  Let's look at clothing stores, for example.  A cotton t-shirt purchased at Old Navy is likely going to cost less than a similar cotton t-shirt purchased at American Eagle Outfitters.  Comparing the primary functions of a t-shirt, it's unlikely the one from AE is going to do a better job of covering your torso.  It's unlikely there will be much of a difference in the comfortableness of the shirts.  It's also possible that each shirt would have flashy, albeit different, designs on them to make you seem as though you're on the cutting edge of fashion.  So why is it, then, that this graphic t-shirt from Old Navy costs about $4.50 (about 25%) less than this graphic t-shirt from American Eagle?  Both are a similar color, made from the same material, and have graphics that take up about the same percentage of the front of the shirt.  If you were looking at this quandary from a completely pragmatic point of view, you would deduct that the shirt from Old Navy represents the better value.  However, the AE shirt is still, presumably, being purchased at a high rate.  This is because not everyone sees value in the same way.  For someone who places value on other people's perception of their sense of style, perhaps the "American Eagle" brand printed across their chest is sufficient to warrant them spending an extra $4.50 on that shirt.

But, why does AE charge more in the first place?  Wouldn't they be better off offering this shirt at a more competitive rate?  The answer is "maybe."  As I said above, lawyers charge different amounts for the same services for a myriad of different reasons.  Stores do the same.  Maybe AE's production costs are higher due to their inability to order products in the same volumes that Old Navy can.  Maybe AE's materials are of a slightly higher quality, forcing them to charge a higher price to help cover their materials costs.  Maybe AE has done extensive research and determined that the price tag on their shirt is one that will give them optimal profit margins (i.e., maybe they could sell 5 shirts an hour if they were $15, but it's more profitable to sell 4 shirts an hour at $19 each).  Maybe AE's store space is more expensive per square foot, meaning that their overhead costs force them to charge a higher premium for their products.  Anyway, you get the idea.  There are many reasons that could be responsible for higher costs at AE than at Old Navy.

The same can be said for law firms.  A law firm that consists of one attorney with 2 years of experience who works out of his home is likely going to be able to charge less for the same services than an attorney with the same experience who works at a firm with 15 other lawyers, each with their own secretary, and a handful of paralegals who have a suite in a high-rise in downtown Minneapolis.  The second lawyer in this scenario has more overhead to cover in his costs, where as the first attorney can put almost his entire fee directly into his pocket.  Just because attorney #2 charges at a rate of $300 an hour while attorney #1 charges $150 doesn't mean that one is any better than the other.  Again, by looking at the primary functions and qualification of a lawyer, we can see that attorney #1 probably isn't much different than attorney #2.  They probably both went to perfectly fine law schools, interned at a firm during their summers, got a similar entry-level job out of school, and have gotten a similar amount of experience along the way.

Ultimately, the decision that you will have to make will boil down to where you find value in attorneys.  If you're someone who loves personal, one-on-one attention, it's likely that you'll be happier with the sole practitioner.  If you find value in the security that comes with the money, resources, and reputation of the larger firm, you might be more comfortable with them representing you.  A lot of times, as I've mentioned previously, you will make your decision based solely on which attorney you like better.  It may seem like a trivial thing, but people tend to work better with others when they find those people to be generally agreeable.  You don't have to be friends with your lawyer to work well together, but seeing as you'll likely be spending a sizable amount of time with them, a friendly rapport couldn't hurt.

Oh, and the kid with the ritzy attorney?  He's doing 25-to life in fictional prison.  Sometimes art does imitate life.

Choosing a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer to represent you in a criminal case isn't always easy.  Whether you've been charged with something as minor as misdemeanor trespassing or as serious as felony assault, finding the right person to represent you is not something to be taken lightly.  If you have been charged with a crime or believe that you may be charged with one soon, contact a Minnesota defense attorney today to get someone in your corner who is ready to fight for your rights.

Lastly, come back Wednesday, March 7th to read about when a lower fee doesn't always represent the good value that it would appear to.  Here's hoping everyone has a great, crime-free week!

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