18 Sep 23

Financial Options for Paying a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer

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Last Updated on: 20th September 2023, 11:52 pm

Financial Options for Paying a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer

Finding yourself in need of a federal criminal defense lawyer can be scary. And figuring out how you’re going to pay for that lawyer can be even scarier. Lawyers are expensive, there’s no doubt about it. But having the right lawyer by your side could make all the difference in your case. So you need to find a way to pay for one, even if money is tight.

The good news is, you have options. There are ways to pay for a lawyer even if you don’t have thousands of dollars just lying around. This article will walk you through some of the most common ways people pay for federal criminal defense attorneys, so you can figure out the best route for your unique situation.

Getting a Free Lawyer Through the Public Defender System

If you truly cannot afford a lawyer, the first option to look into is getting a public defender appointed to you for free. The federal public defender system provides lawyers to represent defendants who cannot afford counsel in federal criminal cases[6]. To qualify for a public defender, you’ll have to verify that you are financially unable to retain private counsel.

Public defenders are real lawyers with the skills and experience needed for federal criminal defense. They often have heavy caseloads, but if you cannot afford private counsel, a public defender is much better than going it alone. Speak with the judge at your first court appearance to request appointment of a public defender.

Hiring a Lawyer for a Flat Fee

Some lawyers offer to handle federal criminal cases for a flat fee upfront, rather than billing by the hour. For example, a lawyer may charge a flat $5,000 to handle a case from start to finish. This allows you to know your full costs upfront and avoid unpredictable hourly billing.

The downside is that more complicated cases may end up requiring more work than the lawyer anticipated, eating into their compensation. But for relatively straightforward federal cases, a flat fee can be a good option if you can pull together the funds.

Putting a Lawyer on Retainer

A retainer is a chunk of money you pay upfront to secure a lawyer’s services. For example, you may pay a $5,000 retainer. The lawyer then bills against this retainer, deducting their hourly rate from the retainer as they work. Once the retainer is used up, you replenish it or begin paying new fees.

Retainers allow lawyers to know they will be paid for their work. And they allow you to lock in services instead of scrambling to find counsel if you suddenly get arrested. If you have some savings or can borrow from friends/family, a retainer gives you access to a lawyer’s services.

Financing Your Legal Fees

If you don’t have the cash on hand to prepay legal fees, financing may be an option. There are a couple approaches to financing legal costs:

  • Credit cards – Many law firms accept credit card payments. This allows you to pay over time, although interest rates are usually high.
  • Payment plans – Your lawyer may agree to let you make installment payments on their fees over several months.
  • Legal fee funding companies – There are companies that will loan you money solely to pay legal fees at lower interest rates.

Financing spreads payments out over time, but you end up paying more overall. Still, it can make legal help affordable in the short term. Be sure to read financing terms closely and shop around for the best rates.

Tapping Retirement Accounts

In very limited circumstances, you may be able to withdraw funds from a retirement account like a 401(k) or IRA to pay legal fees. This usually involves taking a loan from your account that you repay over 5 years. Penalties and taxes still apply, so this option makes sense only in dire scenarios.

But for some, paying penalties to tap retirement funds is still preferable to skimping on their legal defense. It’s something to consider if you have significant retirement savings but little cash on hand.


If you have an active social network, crowdfunding may help you raise some of the funds needed for a lawyer. Sites like GoFundMe allow you to share your story and request donations from friends, family, and supporters.

Many people feel uncomfortable asking for money. But if you explain your legal situation and how donations will assist, crowdfunding can pay for part (or maybe even all) of your defense. Those who care about you may be happy to help.

Seeking Pro Bono Assistance

Some lawyers offer pro bono services, representing select clients for free outside of their normal paid work. Qualifying for pro bono help usually requires demonstrating financial need. But if you meet requirements, a pro bono lawyer could defend you at no cost.

Large law firms often have pro bono programs. Look for firms that focus on federal criminal defense and see if they accept pro bono clients. This can make top-notch representation affordable even if you have limited funds.

Using a Legal Defense Fund

There are organizations that raise money to provide legal defense funds for people facing certain criminal charges. For example, some groups assist protesters by paying their legal fees. Or a group may fund defenses related to a specific issue, like cannabis laws.

If there is an advocacy group related to your type of criminal case, reach out and see if they offer any legal financial assistance. Even if they can’t fully fund your defense, they may be able to contribute.

Liquidating Assets

As a last resort, you may opt to liquidate assets to pay for a lawyer. This could involve selling a car, cashing out investments, borrowing against your home equity, or selling other valuables.

Going this route puts your property at risk if you lose the case, so it should only be considered if there are no better options. But for some, selling assets is preferable to jeopardizing their defense by hiring an inadequate lawyer.

In Conclusion

Paying legal fees is difficult, but critical when facing federal criminal charges. If at all possible, do not skimp on your defense lawyer. Your freedom and reputation are on the line. Explore all options – from public defenders, to credit cards, to crowdfunding – to secure the best lawyer you can. Don’t let payment issues stop you from mounting a strong legal defense. Use the financial options above to find a way to pay for a quality lawyer.