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Considering Price and Value When Choosing an Attorney

Interviewer: How about the question of price? I hear from a lot of attorneys nowadays, and obviously their potential clients, “Oh, well so-and-so will do it cheaper,” so for the price you charge, whatever it may be, what can you do and what would happen if you charged a thousand dollars less? What could you do in that case and what would you do if you had unlimited money to defend a case?

Sam Sachs: Unfortunately, the profession’s their own worst enemy. We have more lawyers than we need. The law schools keep on churning them out and instead of trying to distinguish themselves, especially young lawyers, based on their experience, their expertise, and their accomplishments, they try and distinguish themselves based on what they charge, and that’s the most foolish way in the world to pick an attorney.

If I needed a heart transplant, I wouldn’t shop around and pick the surgeon that charges the cheapest amount. I would pick the doctor that has the best credentials and the best success record. It’s the same thing with attorneys. Unfortunately, with doctors, you either make it or you don’t. With attorneys, you get to live with what the outcome is, so hiring the least expensive attorney may work out, it may not, but there are really two elements to it.

A Defendant is almost always upset; Knowing that He / She Faces Penalties

One is what kind of a defense you are going to get, and even in a marginal case, you can have an attorney that leaves no stone unturned. Are they going to just try and take you in, plea bargain and plead you? Or are they going to go through and try and defend your case? That takes time. Which leads to the second element, what are you going to pay? When you have an attorney that charges $5,000 for a matter and another that charges $1,000 for a matter, the guy that’s charging $1,000 cannot possibly put the preparation and analysis time in and the legal research to properly represent somebody. It just can’t happen.

A defendant is almost always upset. They know there may be penalties, or there’s going to be life repercussions financially, and when I get a phone call and somebody says to me, “I got an aggravated assault charge. How much do you charge?” I always respond by saying, “That’s the last question you should ask me, because if you’re shopping for price, there’s always some attorney somewhere who probably doesn’t have a lot of experience or maybe somebody that does a little real estate, chases ambulances, does some workmen’s comp, will do a real estate closing for you, and they’ll tell you they’ll represent you on a criminal matter.”

“Budget Attorneys” Often Try to Plead Out and Get Rid of the Case

I’m a specialist. All I do is criminal and drunk driving and serious motor vehicle stuff. I don’t do anything else. I don’t take only the simple cases. I take the cases other attorneys don’t want to handle or the ones that are referred to me from other attorneys for that reason. I need to spend the time to make sure my files are prepped.

We tag-team in my office. Every file that comes in is handled by me and by my associate. There are always two pairs of eyes that go over every inch of the file. That takes time. Time is money. If you want someone to look at it quickly, not really understand in depth how to analyze it, that doesn’t know the law, isn’t going to check and go in and say, “Okay, what kind of deal can you make me, Madame Prosecutor or Mr. Prosecutor?” and let’s plead this out and get rid of it – then hire a budget attorney.

It’s hard sometimes; I may leave no stone unturned and not find one that’s helpful, but there is some satisfaction in knowing that if you’re in a jam, you did the very best you could as a defendant to try and get out of it, so you don’t always have to wonder, “Geez, I hired this guy for $1,000. I wonder if my life would have turned out differently if I had somebody that knew what they were doing.” I can’t tell you how many times people have called me up after they didn’t retain me, because they hired somebody else because of what the fees are, and then say, “I made a real mistake.”

Hiring the Wrong Attorney to Defend Your Case May Have Critical Long Term Consequences

I’ve run into them on the street. I ran into a guy one time at the local cigar store saying to me, “I made the biggest mistake of my life. I spoke to you. I liked you, and then I decided to hire someone that charged less. He sold me down the river. I lost my job. I lost my pension. I’ve regretted it every day since.” I said, “You know, I don’t know if I could have done any better for you. I don’t know the facts of your case, but I never had an opportunity to look at it. At least if you had hired me, you could have stood a chance.” I always say I’m the most tenacious guy on the block. I don’t give up and I like to look at things out of the box. I’m not a linear thinker.

Interviewer: You talked about being paid enough to do the “necessary work.”

Sam Sachs: Yes, and I don’t imply that my fees are at the top of the scale. They’re not. For guys with my kind of experience and my kind of commitment, I’m probably at the middle of the scale.

The Merits of Having an Experienced Attorney Representing You in Your Case

Interviewer: Sam, I wanted you to go over, literally, what you would do for X and what you only could do for X minus $1,000 or X minus $2,000. Meaning for your fee, you can make up to a certain number of appearances, you could hire an expert witness. With a cheaper guy, you’d be unlikely to get the extra witness, for example. I just want you to spell it out literally a few of the things that a lawyer could do in a case that he couldn’t do with less money.

Sam Sachs: Almost all my cases are done on flat fees. The reason I do work for flat fees is when I first started in private practice, I found out the two biggest complaints about lawyers were they don’t return their phone calls and you never know how much to you are going to pay them. We make it a practice to return phone calls within hours, or at the latest, if it’s late in the day, the next day. I’ll take phone numbers home with me and call people at night because I know that the kind of work I do is anxiety-ridden. I give people my cell phone number and say, “If you’re freaking out, give me a call.” That part was easy to take care of.

The other part is how much are you going to pay? That scares the hell out of people. Somebody will quote you a fee and you think you will save a thousand dollars, but what they don’t tell you is that the retainer says that every time they go to court, they charge another $500. I decided that I’m willing to average that out and I’ve had cases where I’ve gone back 13 times to get the right result. They paid exactly the same flat fee I quoted.

With other cases, maybe I can get it done after two or three times in court, so I’ve taken that out of the equation. I’m willing to balance my time out, so if I have to go more often, I’m willing to go, and I don’t want the clients to have the anxiety of paying extra. Sometimes I say it’s better for the client if I’m coming back and I’m going to take another run at the prosecutor. I may want to speak to the police officer. I may want to get an expert to do a report. I don’t want them freaking out – “Oh my god, we have to pay another $500 or $700 to come back.” It’s included in the fee. Relax. I’m trying to get the best result here.

Cases are Won Through Preparation and Comprehension of a Situation

That’s one way I take the anxiety out. The other thing is, the fees are calculated so in some cases I spend more time than others, but the average works out okay, and some I earn less, but the cases are won in my office. They’re not won in the courtroom. They’re won through preparation. They’re won from looking at videotapes of the defendant. They’re won by looking at photographs, by going over police reports, and by doing timelines. That takes time.

It’s takes a lot of prep to know your case frontwards and backwards and if you’re charging 25% of what a lawyer should charge, you can’t do that prep, so you look at it and you have to say to yourself, this is a third degree indictable and I’ll probably walk in, and maybe they’ll give me a fourth degree. Maybe I’ll ask for no incarceration. Maybe the guy will do six months. He’ll think I did a good job and walk away. I don’t even get there until after I look at every shred of evidence in the case and lots of times, I would say more often than not, I find pieces missing and I’ll say, “I want this, I want that, I want the other thing,” and I won’t go ahead without getting it.

I’ll give you an example. In drug cases, lots of times, if the prosecutor makes what seems like a reasonable offer an attorney will go ahead and plead somebody without ever seeing a drug lab. I consider that malpractice. I will not take a first offenders program and I will not plead somebody unless I make sure the state has all their evidence. Every once in a while, the state police lab makes a mistake or they don’t analyze the sample properly. Why should I go ahead and dispose of the case, except for my own greedy reasons, if I haven’t seen all the state’s evidence? I never do that.

An Example of a Notable Case Bearing a Favorable Resolution

I had a drug case where they had my client charged with second degree cultivation of marijuana. There would be jail time – no two ways about it. The way our statute works is the gradation of the charge is based on how many plants you have, and they said, “Well, we found all these flower pots and they took the plants. We sent them to the lab and we’re making you a non-custodial offer. It’s a really good deal.” I said, “You know what? It may be. I want to see a lab.”

What happened was they got the lab. The lab has a certain way of counting plants. They count the plants only if they have stems and intact root systems, and when the police pulled them out, they destroyed the root systems on some of the plants, so the number of plants the lab actually counted as separate plants was under the enhanced penalty, and as a result, the case dropped down to a third degree and my client got a first offender program because I insisted on seeing the evidence instead of taking the easy way out. You can’t do that if you take a bargain basement fee.

As I said, we always have two pairs of eyes on every file. Lauren will prep a file, and then I’ll prep a file. I’ll prep a file, then she’ll prep the file, and we consult about it. It’s one of the nice things about having another specialist in the office because we have an ongoing dialogue about the law, about what the latest cases are, about what we found in this case, about what the judge may or may not do, about what the prosecutor will do, and that all takes time. Just taking a file and looking at it the night before and bopping into court and taking the first thing they throw at you – that’s not practicing law. That’s robbery.

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