How, and How Much, Do Lawyers Charge?

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Working with a lawyers to resolve your legal can be a good idea, but comes with a price. Sometimes a high one. However, you should understand how you'll be billed and what to expect when you get the final bill shouldn't be a total mystery. Here is some information to help you become more informed before you meet with a lawyer.      


How much are you willing to spend?

Legal services aren't cheap, and you should know how much are you willing to spend up front. Good representation may come at a steep, but not unreasonable, price. 

When you're shopping for legal services, always ask potential attorneys to fully explain their fees and billing practices. Don't hesitate to ask detailed questions and don't be embarrassed. A lawyer's willingness to discuss fees is an important indicator of client service.

What are typical fee arrangements?

Standard payment arrangements an attorney may suggest include:

  • Hourly rates
  • Flat fees
  • Retainers
  • Contingent fees

Hourly Rates

Hourly rates are the most common arrangement. Under this arrangement, the attorney gets paid an agreed-upon hourly rate for the hours worked on a client's case or matter until it's resolved.

It depends on each attorney's experience, operating expenses, and the location of his or her practice. Cheaper isn't necessarily better when it comes to your legal protection. A more expensive lawyer with a lot of experience may be able to handle a complex problem more quickly. Also, an experienced attorney will be able to better estimate how many lawyer hours a particular matter will take to resolve.

Flat Fees

Where a legal matter is simple and well-defined, lawyers typically charge a flat fee. Examples of flat fee matters include wills, uncontested divorces and simple bankruptcy filings. If an attorney suggests or has advertised a flat fee, be sure you understand exactly what that fee will and will not cover. The flat fee might not include expenses such as filing fees.

Retainer Fee

A retainer fee is typically, but not always, an advance payment on the hourly rate for a specific case. The lawyer puts the retainer in a special trust account and deducts from that account the cost of services as they accrue. During the course of legal representation, clients should review periodic billing statements reflecting amounts deducted from the retainer.

Most retainers are non-refundable unless labeled "unreasonable" by a court. If you decide to drop a case that your lawyer has worked on before the retainer has been exhausted, you may forfeit the remainder.

Contingent Fees

In certain types of cases, attorneys work on a contingent fee basis. Contingent means that the attorney takes no fee from the client up-front, but gets a percentage typically one-third (1/3) of the settlement or money upon judgment. Contingent fee arrangements are typical for:

Courts set limits on the contingency fees a lawyer can receive from personal injury suits. Of course, lawyers and clients are free to negotiate contingency fees less than the standard one-third.

Contingent fee arrangements in certain kinds of cases such as divorce, criminal cases, or child custody cases are prohibited.

How much can you expect to pay?

Rates for legal fees vary based on location, experience of the lawyer, and the nature of the matter. Believe it or not, rates may vary anywhere from $50 an hour to a $1,000 an hour or more.

In rural areas and small towns, lawyers tend to charge less, and fees in the range of $100 to $200 an hour for an experienced attorney are probably the norm. In major metropolitan areas, the norm is probably closer to $200 to $400 an hour. Lawyers with expertise in specialized areas may charge much more. 

In addition, you can expect to be charged at an hourly rate for paralegals and other support staff. A good paralegal's time, for example, may be billed out at $50 to a $100 an hour or perhaps more. It would not be unusual for a legal secretary's time on things like document production to be billed out at perhaps $25 to $50 an hour.

What About Expenses and Court Costs?

Little things add up. Carefully discuss with your lawyer anticipated miscellaneous costs so that you can estimate those costs up front and avoid any unpleasant surprises. Be prepared to scrutinize court costs, filing fees, secretarial time, and delivery charges.

Keeping Track of Legal Fees

Get a fee agreement in writing. If an attorney is unwilling to put a fee agreement in writing, cross that attorney off your list. Some states require written fee agreements for most cases.

Ask your attorney to include in the fee agreement a provision for periodic, itemized billing. An itemized bill should list and describe all charges so that you can review them and compare them to your fee agreement.

You might want to arrange for a ceiling or limit on fees. You might also require your lawyer to get your approval before proceeding beyond a certain amount in legal costs. If you've hired an attorney to recover a $10,000 debt, you probably don't want to pay $8,000 in legal fees to resolve the matter.

Next: Free or Low-Cost Legal Sercvices

Free or Low-Cost Legal Services

Depending upon your financial situation, you may be entitled to free legal services. If you are indigent within the meaning of any applicable state or federal guideline, you may be eligible for representation by a public defender in a federal or state criminal case. Low-income people may also qualify for free representation in landlord-tenant and divorce cases. If you need financial help in obtaining legal representation and think that you might qualify for indigent status, contact pro bono and legal services organizations in your area.

In many cases you don't have to be indigent to get a lawyer for free or at little cost. Some organizations offer their members prepaid legal plans. Often plans include a low or no-cost consultation, or low-cost services in uncontested divorces or simple wills matters. Check your liability insurance policy. Your policy may include coverage for attorney fees or require your insurance company to provide an attorney to defend you in a lawsuit.

Many unions provide free legal services to their members in union-related matters. If your case or claim is work-related, talk to your union representative.

Certain rights or advocacy groups might want to get involved in your case. For example, if you are challenging an unlawful attack on your civil liberties or right to free speech, an organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union may be interested in helping you.

Charged with a Crime, but Can't Afford a Lawyer?

If you are indigent and if you are charged with a serious offense, you may be entitled to have an attorney appointed to represent you for free. The federal government and the states provide for the appointment of public defenders for indigent criminal defendants.

Public defenders are paid by the government and are required to represent clients as vigorously and competently as private attorneys. Public defenders often are specialists with many years of experience in the defense of criminal cases. Don't underestimate their expertise.

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