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The $10,000 phone call

In my story today about a collection dispute between two lawyers, I was unable to include some interesting expert witness testimony.

Leonard H. Shapiro, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Owings Mills, testified for the defense about the $10,000 legal fee at the heart of the case. George Michael Perez paid that amount to T. Wray McCurdy up front to defend Perez against arson charges filed by prosecutors in June 2007.

The sides dispute whether the money was an engagement or retainer fee. Shapiro, who called it an engagement fee based on the contract, said that was a reasonable amount regardless of what type of fee it was because of the complex nature of arson cases.

“Almost always you’re dealing with expert testimony and lots of discovery,” he said. “They are circumstantial cases developed through evidence.”

Under cross-examination by Michael T. Wyatt, Shapiro said retainer fees are different in a criminal case than in a divorce case. A criminal retainer does not have to be earned, he said, and there are some cases where an entire fee is required up front.

Shapiro then hypothetically made himself a lawyer who received a $10,000 fee to defend a client against arson charges. Shapiro said that money would be a reasonable fee if he called the State’s Attorney’s office and pointed out the flaws in prosecutors’ case, which ultimately led to the charges being dropped.

“Is $10,000 for a phone call reasonable?” Wyatt asked.

“In certain circumstances, it could be,” Shapiro replied.

Thoughts from the peanut gallery?