Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Value vs. Cost, Part II: Why Going with the Cheapest Option Might Not Be a Good Idea

On Monday, I wrote in this space about finding value when choosing an attorney.  The point of that article was to remind you of something you probably already know.  Namely, that just because something is more expensive does not make it inherently better.  But what about the other side of the spectrum?  Is it safe to assume that something that is cheaper than a similar product is likely just as good, and therefore a better value?  Not always.

When I was in law school, I had something of a shoestring budget.  I lived in a house with three other guys.  I was living off of student loans and a part time job, so I had to make sure that I was watching my bottom line.  I love to eat peanut butter.  It's one of my favorite things.  Sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night and just eat a spoonful of it.  As a result of my addiction, my peanut butter budget was becoming prohibitive during this frugal period of my life.  I decided I needed to find a way to cut my PB costs, and since eating less of it wasn't an option, that meant buying the bargain basement store brand.  "It's just peanut butter," I thought.  "How much different could it be?"  The answer was "very different."  It was the worst thing I've ever tasted in my life.  I made a sandwich, took one bite, spit said bite into the sink, and proceeded to take the rest of the peanut butter in the jar and fling it into the alley for the raccoons to eat.  That garbage was not fit for human consumption.  This experience taught me a hard lesson about value vs. cost.

I have since found generic peanut butter brands that are perfectly fine and usually purchase them instead of the Skippy's or Jiff's of the world and take the $.75 in savings with each trip to the store.  I have found that not all generic peanut butters are disgusting, but the first one I tried sure was.  How does this relate to hiring an attorney?  Just like with cheap peanut butter, it's all about finding an attorney that both fits your budget and your taste.

In a perfect world, money would be no object for people when choosing an attorney.  They would be able to meet with a handful of prospects, determine which one is the best fit for them, and happily write a check for whatever the agreed upon amount for representation ends up being.  Unfortunately, that's not the way the world works.  Most people need to shop for bargains for everything from toothpaste to houses.  Attorneys are no different.  So, how do you avoid getting the unpalatable attorney and having to learn your lesson the hard way?  There are a few things you can do to "test" lawyers when you meet with them that can help you figure out whether they're inexpensive because they're bad or just because they're economical.

First of all, don't bring up cost with a lawyer before you talk about anything else.  The last thing I want to hear from a potential client as soon as I answer the phone is "I'm just looking for a quote for..."  What this tells me is that their plan is to call a ton of lawyers to find out which one will agree to do it for the least money.  I don't want those clients.  I believe the my rates are exceptionally reasonable, and I have even been known to cut folks a deal in certain situations, but a client that cares more about getting a good price than they do about getting good representation isn't one that I want to work with.  Clients like that are often less interested in participating in their defense and are less likely to ever pay the reduced fee they are looking for.  Don't be that kind of client.  If for no other reason, bring up cost at the beginning of a consultation is not effective because most lawyers will want to hear what they're dealing with before they'll give you a quote.  Attorneys know their services are expensive and cost prohibitive for a lot of people.  If your case is interesting enough, some lawyers may be willing to meet you in the middle on fees.  You'll never find out if they are open to that if you offend them by complaining about money right away.

Second, have good questions ready when you call or meet with an attorney.  Most lawyers won't have all the answers for you during an initial consultation.  That's what legal research is for.  They should, however, be able to answer your basic questions regarding the type of punishment you could face, potential defense strategies, and your case's strengths and weaknesses.  If you meet with a lawyer that doesn't seem to know much about your charge, that's a red flag.  All attorneys will say things like "I'll have to look this up" or "this is somewhat unique, so I'll have to look at some cases," but those shouldn't be the only answers they offer.  Look for an attorney who appears to be up on current laws, precedents, and techniques in the field.  Attorney's who aren't will spend a lot of time looking up basic questions, which in the end will end up costing you money in billable hours.

Third, be extremely leery of any lawyer who's quote is significantly lower than other attorneys you meet with.  If five lawyers quoted you between $2500 and $3000 for a certain case, be careful of the attorney who says he can do it for $1000.  Rates that low can be indicators of three things:

1) This lawyer is so new to the game that he or she has no idea what their time is worth.  While I don't think experience is all it's cracked up to be (experience is something older attorneys highlight, while younger attorneys highlight how hard they work and the attention they'll give you), you don't want someone handling your case who clearly has no idea what they're getting into.

2) This lawyer, for whatever reason, has so much trouble finding clients that when someone calls them with a case, they will agree to pretty much any fee arrangement just to sign the client.  Aggressiveness is a good quality in a lawyer; desperation is not.  An attorney that is so desperate to sign you to an agreement that they're willing to charge 40% of what everyone else charges for your case is an attorney you'll want to steer clear of.

3) This lawyer charges so little because he or she takes any and every case that comes across his desk and deals with a HUGE volume of work.  I call this the Wal*Mart theory of lawyering.  Wal*Mart can sell goods at reduced costs because they buy and sell so damn much of everything.  Their profit margin on each item might be a little less than a smaller store, but the sheer volume of transactions make them on of the most profitable companies in the world.  The issue with Wal*Mart is that their products and service aren't always top notch.  The same goes for attorneys who overextend themselves.  Being busy as a lawyer is a good thing, but being overworked is a bad thing.  It all goes back to what I talked about in my article comparing private attorneys to public defenders.  Public defenders aren't worse lawyers than private lawyers, but they are often hindered by their caseload.  An attorney who has too many active clients is one who won't have enough time to dedicate specifically to you.  Overworked lawyers are usually quick to suggest a plea, even when the chances of a successful trial are good, simply because it will get your file off their desk and give them a better per hour rate for their time.  You want to work with a lawyer who is in demand, but isn't so swamped with work that they're going to neglect your case.

Basically, you need to use common sense when hiring an attorney, just the same as you need to when purchasing a car, house, or peanut butter.  If you feel comfortable with a lawyer and they meet your budget, your search is over.  If you feel comfortable with someone but they charge more than you're really prepared to spend, you need to decide whether it's worth the extended cost to get representation you'll be comfortable with.  If someone is in your price range but doesn't exactly instill you with confidence in their ability to handle your case efficiently and effectively, you're probably better off continuing your search.

There's no doubt that finding the right attorney can be an arduous process.  Whether you've been charged with a DWI, felony, misdemeanor, traffic violation, or a juvenile crime, contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer today to get someone working on your behalf.

As always, none of the proceeding information is intended to act as legal advice in any way.  If you have been charged with a crime, or you believe you may soon be charged with a crime, contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney immediately regarding your situation to get the advice and guidance you need.

No comments:

Post a Comment