How do you set up a Legal Defense Fund?
May 9, 2006 9:40 PM   Subscribe

How do you set up a Legal Defense Fund? I have a very good friend who is a legal bind and will very possibly be charged with three felonies as a result of a barroom brawl.

He did not start the fight, but got “sucked in,” and while getting the "tar" beaten out of him, feared for his life, and resorted to using a small, pen knife with a 1" blade to fend off his attackers. He has always carried this penknife to use for everything from letter opening to repairing his dark glasses. All witnesses agree that he had nothing to do with starting the fight. Hence, a case of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I, along with all of his friends and working colleagues, am thoroughly convinced that he will be able to either get the charges dropped or greatly reduced if he retains the best lawyer he can find. Obviously, this won't be cheap. He, his fiancée and her folks feel this will cost at least $10,000 to get something effective started. I agree. His fiancée and mother have sent out a mass email to all of us requesting financial assistance. They have asked that donations be sent directly to his bank account at a large, nationally known bank and have even provided the routing and account numbers. Even though I completely trust him, his fiancée, etc., I wonder if there is better, "safer" way, to set up this legal defense fund. I envision one where neither he, nor his lawyer, has direct access to the funds; rather a neutral, unconnected party could "meter out" the funds to the lawyer as required. In this day of so many "take the money and run" lawyers, and sensational news stories seen each year regarding somebody getting “taken to the cleaners” by a lawyer or other professional, I want to assist this great guy in the setup of this fund, and have everything "squeaky clean." That way nobody will have any questions regarding the possible impropriety of the intended purpose of the funds. Any assistance in how to get this off on the right track in a quick, legal and fair-to-all manner will be greatly appreciated!
posted by thebarron to Law & Government (9 answers total)
 
I think the scheme you're proposing is a very bad idea, however well-intentioned. Attorneys are heavily regulated; if they rip off clients they are disciplined by their state bar. My guess is that, if you tell a good attorney, "we are not paying you directly, but there is a 'neutral, unconnected party' who has control over the funds and will mete them out to you as they see fit," the attorney will tell you to get lost.

Many criminal defense attorneys quote a flat fee for representation in criminal cases. Others require a retainer, which they place in their trust account, and pay themselves as they do the work. I have never heard of an arrangement like the one you propose, and it is fraught with potential problems. How will the neutral party know whether the fee is appropriate? What recourse does the attorney have, if the neutral party refuses to pay for work the attorney did?

Think of a medical analogy. Would you propose a similar arrangement--i.e., the neutral party meting out funds---if your friend needed an emergency surgery?

I understand that you'd like to create a situation in which people will donate money with confidence that it will be used wisely. But I think the plan is misguided and likely to cause some of the best attorneys to think representing your friend is more trouble than it is worth.

Be careful not to set up a scheme that hurts, rather than helps, your friend's legal defense efforts.
posted by jayder at 10:19 PM on May 9, 2006


A couple of other observations:

(1) If the facts are as you state them to be, I wouldn't assume anything concerning future criminal charges. You say he will "very likely" be charged with three felonies. That's a far cry from "charged with three felonies." If anything should provoke skepticism in potential donors, the mass e-mail from his fiance and mother, asking for money prior to his being charged with any crime. If his self-defense case is as clear-cut as you seem to think it is, the emergency call for cash donations is premature.


(2) You may be vastly overstating the expense of his legal defense. Many criminal defense lawyers charge different amounts, depending on the stage of the process the defendant is in. I.e., if they can get the case dismissed early in the proceedings, the fee may be in the $500 - $2000 range, even for a very good attorney.
posted by jayder at 10:28 PM on May 9, 2006


(1) If the facts are as you state them to be, I wouldn't assume anything concerning future criminal charges. You say he will "very likely" be charged with three felonies. That's a far cry from "charged with three felonies." If anything should provoke skepticism in potential donors, the mass e-mail from his fiance and mother, asking for money prior to his being charged with any crime. If his self-defense case is as clear-cut as you seem to think it is, the emergency call for cash donations is premature.

That's absurd. You want to get a good lawyer right away. A local lawyer will know the local system and might be able to prevent your friend from being charged at all.

I wonder if there is better, "safer" way, to set up this legal defense fund. I envision one where neither he, nor his lawyer, has direct access to the funds; rather a neutral, unconnected party could "meter out" the funds to the lawyer as required.

Well, obviously handing out routing numbers and bank account's isn't the safest way to do things (since people can use those numbers to forge checks from your friend).

But anyway, straight-up asking for money seems like a reasonable way to go about this, it's normally what people do in similar situations, as far as I know.
posted by delmoi at 11:19 PM on May 9, 2006


Thank you jayder and delmoi for your serious and appreciated comments. You bring up some good points.

It's refreshing that most people who post responses do so seriously rather than make light of how questions are stated, poke fun and come off downright condescending.
posted by thebarron at 11:34 PM on May 9, 2006


Most, if not all attorneys, have one or more trust accounts in which they hold funds that belong to other people - advance fee deposits, settlement proceeds, advance expense payments, and so on.

Any reputable lawyer will be able to accept funds on an advance payment basis and hold it in their trust accounts, keeping records of who gave how much.

As the poster above said, these funds are "heavily regulated" which means the best way for a lawyer to lose his license and his livelihood is to cheat on his trust account. Still, some do. But most don't, and in this type of case, you're probably correct in your cost estimates, if not a bit low.

If you really want to help your friend out, have him discuss this with his lawyer. If you've got a good trustworthy attorney, there should be no problem. If you don't, it's better to find out before going to trial.
posted by mikewas at 5:36 AM on May 10, 2006


His fiancée and mother have sent out a mass email to all of us requesting financial assistance. They have asked that donations be sent directly to his bank account at a large, nationally known bank and have even provided the routing and account numbers.

This makes baby Jesus cry.
posted by schroedinger at 9:03 AM on May 10, 2006


Attorneys are held to strict profesional responsibility standards. I can't imagine an attorney agreeing to have you dole out money as you see fit - the appropriate arrangement is to pay a retainer, and they withdraw funds as they spend time on the case. The arrangement you propose exposes the attorney to having to take clients to court to force them to pay their fees. Even if YOU wouldn't do that, the attorney has no way of knowing that. Pay the retainer. If the case is dismissed early, the balance of the retainer is returned to you.
posted by gatorae at 9:57 AM on May 10, 2006


Well, obviously handing out routing numbers and bank account's isn't the safest way to do things (since people can use those numbers to forge checks from your friend).

Anybody to whom you write a check has your routing and account number. It's not particularly privileged information.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:01 AM on May 10, 2006


It surely wouldn't hurt to consult an attorney, if your friend wishes to. But, against what Delmoi says, I think getting a "legal defense fund" together, before he has been charged with anything, is reflective of a panicky middle-class mindset that disregards how the criminal justice system works.

When your only exposure to criminal courts is watching O.J. Simpson, Andrea Yates, and the Duke Lacrosse cases on TV, it's easy to think, "this is what you do in a criminal case --- get a legal defense fund going." As law abiding citizens with little contact with the criminal justice system, your understanding of that system may be warped by celebrity trials.

A big fundraising effort is likely not necessary, because, on the facts as you state them, the case will probably get dismissed early on. For a good criminal defense lawyer, $10,000 is what it would cost to take a case like this to trial. You'll have plenty of time to raise that money once the guy is charged and it becomes clear the state intends to prosecute.
posted by jayder at 10:03 AM on May 10, 2006


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