Even after winning a court case, people may feel uneasy about the amount of money they have spent on attorney's fees. An experienced lawyer's assistance is invaluable to a case, but legal fees should be equivalent to the services provided. The difference between a fair price and an excessive one varies depending on the circumstances of your case. Complex cases cost more than simple legal matters. Understanding the nature of the legal services you need can help to explain your lawyer's costs and fees.
The bottom line: The cost of hiring a lawyer depends on your case and what fee arrangements you make. This article can help you better understand your options.
Injury or Accident Cases
Most personal injury lawyers handle cases on a contingency fee basis, meaning the lawyer takes a certain percentage of the final settlement or award. Contingency fee arrangements are generally between 30% and 40% of the settlement. If you do not win the case, there are no lawyer's fees.
A contingency fee can also paid be on a sliding scale, meaning the lawyer gets a higher percentage if the settlement or judgment is large and a lower percentage if the award is smaller.
The American Bar Association (ABA) requires written contingency fee agreements. The ABA also prohibits some types of cases — such as divorce, criminal matters, and most family law — from being taken on a contingency basis.
Non-Injury Civil Cases
Family law, estate planning, real estate, and other practice areas use hourly billing. Your attorney will bill you at an hourly rate, often broken into 6-minute or 15-minute increments. The hourly rate varies based on factors such as the lawyer's experience and type of case. In larger firms, associate attorneys or paralegals may do some legal work on a case. Their hourly rates tend to be lower than those of the senior attorneys.
In addition to the hourly rate, your bill will include any or all these charges:
- Court filing fees
- Other court costs, such as court reporters and equipment
- Legal document copying or retrieval
- Service costs
- Expert witness fees
- Travel expenses
For some types of legal issues, an experienced attorney with specialization in the practice area may be worth the extra cost. Boutique law firms that focus on a single practice area have higher hourly rates but can provide better legal representation.
Many attorneys charge flat fees for basic legal work, such as simple wills or uncontested divorces. The total cost will vary depending on your location and the amount of time needed to complete your documents. You should have a written fee agreement for simple legal work, even if it seems unnecessary.
A retainer is similar to a down payment for legal services. The client pays a set amount upfront, and the attorney bills additional charges to the retainer until it is gone. If the case has not yet been settled, the attorney and client may sign a new retainer fee agreement, or the attorney may bill at an hourly rate. Retainer agreements are useful when a case will take a long time, such as probate, or when the client cannot make regular bill payments.
“Having an attorney on retainer" means someone pays an attorney a regular fee to be available when needed. Small businesses that cannot afford full-time attorneys may keep a local attorney on retainer for legal advice.
Some criminal cases, such as DUIs and traffic violations, may be taken on a flat fee basis. The legal process for these cases does not require a criminal defense attorney, and many solo practitioners handle them.
For serious charges that may go to trial, a criminal defense lawyer will probably negotiate an hourly fee agreement. Felony and misdemeanor cases require more paperwork and court appearances, so the lawyer charges more for this representation.
What Should You Do?
An important thing to remember when seeking the right legal counsel for your case is not to let price dictate your choice. The best way to choose a lawyer is to meet them and establish a good attorney-client relationship. Take time to discuss your legal problems, ask questions, and have your concerns addressed directly.
Most lawyers will talk with you about charges and what you can expect to pay. They may be willing to work out payment plans or other arrangements. Most attorneys will give you referrals to other lawyers who charge less but still provide high-quality representation.