Hiring a lawyer to represent you can bring you the intense advocacy, legal expertise, and litigation experience you need to win your case. However, like all professional services, an attorney's legal help likely will not be free. Most lawyers offer a range of fee payment options so clients can find the best fit for their budget, and all lawyers have fee agreements that inform clients of any additional costs upfront.
Factors Affecting Attorney Fees
Lawyers generally can choose how much to charge clients. Most states require an attorney's rates to be "reasonable," with no explicit maximum dollar amount. Many factors affect how an attorney sets their rates, such as:
- The lawyer's experience or specialization in that area of law
- The complexity of the case
- The number of hours the lawyer expects to work on the case
- The number of additional lawyers or support staff the lawyer will need to adequately represent a client
Depending on the case, rates are often negotiable, usually by limiting the lawyer's responsibility for certain aspects of the case that the client could do on their own or that another attorney can do for cheaper. Also, clients can take proactive steps to reduce legal costs.
Types of Fee Arrangements
Generally, there are three types of arrangements that lawyers offer. These are charging an hourly rate, working on contingency, or charging a fixed fee.
Like many other professionals, lawyers often charge an hourly rate for the work they perform. This hourly rate may change depending on the task. For example, a lawyer may charge less for conducting legal research but more for interviewing witnesses. Additionally, lawyers charging by the hour may ask their clients for a retainer, where the client pays for a certain number of hours in advance.
Contingent fees are attorney fees based on results. Generally, the client will not have to pay the lawyer unless the client wins the case. A typical contingency agreement will allow the lawyer to keep 33% of the client's monetary damages upon winning the case. If the lawyer loses the case, the client does not have to pay the lawyer anything. Most states do not allow contingency fee agreements for certain cases, such as criminal cases or divorces.
Finally, a lawyer may offer the client a fixed fee for a specific service. In a fixed-fee agreement, the client pays a set amount regardless of how many hours the attorney works or the outcome. This type of agreement is often the most affordable and usually used for standard, simple legal issues, such as expunging a criminal record or drafting a will.
Additional Costs and Expenses
Like auto mechanics who charge for parts and labor, attorneys may charge clients for the lawyer's work on a case and any expenses or costs. Typical additional costs include:
- Filing fees for filing documents with the court
- Travel expenses
- Mailing postage
- Costs of serving court papers on opposing parties
Lawyers working on contingency or providing free legal services may still ask for reimbursement for additional costs and expenses since these charges would otherwise come out of the attorney's pocket.
Fee Agreement Contracts
Regardless of the type of fee and how much an attorney charges, virtually all lawyers sign fee agreements with each new client. A fee agreement is a contract that spells out how an attorney's fee will be paid, how much the rate is, and the price of the additional costs and expenses. A reasonable fee agreement will clarify all expectations, so the lawyer knows what work the client expects, and the client knows all of the costs upfront.
Like any bill, an attorney's invoice may not be accurate, or it could include costs that the client did not expect to pay. When disputes arise, most states offer a fee-arbitration program specifically designed to help clients resolve disputed fees with their attorneys. Contact your state's bar association if you wish to learn about fee-resolution programs.