Hiring a lawyer can be a difficult experience for those who haven't done it before and are unfamiliar with how lawyers work. It can be hard to figure out what qualities and characteristics make a person a "good" lawyer, and how to determine whether the lawyer you're considering is an experienced attorney for the legal issue you are trying to solve. Figuring out how much a lawyer "should" cost and what you're actually paying for can also be a daunting task, especially since lawyers tend to be fairly expensive.
FindLaw's Legal Fees section provides information about attorney fee agreements, types of legal costs, retainer fees, legal fees, and fee disputes. In this section, you can also find helpful advice on how to reduce your costs and expenses for legal work.
Legal Fees vs. Legal Costs
While it might sound nitpicky, there is actually a difference between legal fees and legal costs. It's important to realize this because when you hire an attorney, you will be billed for both.
A legal fee is a fee for the work performed personally by the attorney and others from their firm who are working on your legal matter. It's totally up to the lawyer to decide how to format their bill. Some attorneys will itemize each cost, others may simply lump all the costs together but list it separately from their legal fee. Finally, some attorneys may include these costs in their own legal fees.
Generally, legal costs refer to expenses related to the case that aren't the actual work that the lawyer is performing. For example, filing fees and court costs, research costs, travel expenses, postage, and photocopying are all legal costs. Things like depositions, consultants, expert witnesses, and investigators are also considered legal costs. Finally, the work done by paralegals or other support staff is usually listed as a legal fee but may also be listed as a legal cost.
Types of Legal Fees
It's hard to say exactly how much a case will cost in legal fees. The cost of hiring an attorney will depend on the type of case, the attorney's experience, and the fee agreement you make with the attorney. However, there is some general information available about how lawyers' fees can work. For example, attorneys who work on criminal cases usually charge a flat fee because the nature of criminal defense makes it difficult to charge an hourly rate or a contingency fee.
Typically, a personal injury case is going to have a contingency fee arrangement, which means that the lawyer is paid a portion of the settlement or judgment. The percentage that the lawyer will be paid is determined at the beginning of the attorney-client relationship. While the percentage a lawyer charges may vary, it's usually about one-third of the settlement or judgment.
If the case doesn't result in a win for the client, then the lawyer doesn't get paid, but you are still on the hook for legal costs. Some contingency fees can also be on a sliding scale, which means that the lawyer's percentage will be higher if the settlement or judgment is large, and lower if the award is small.
For civil cases that don't involve personal injury, usually attorneys charge an hourly rate. Some examples of areas of law that generally require an hourly rate are family law, estate planning, and real estate. Hourly fees will vary greatly from lawyer to lawyer and depending on the complexity of the case.
Many times an attorney who is charging an hourly rate will also require an initial retainer upfront to secure the lawyer's services. The lawyer will use the retainer as a down payment against which future costs are billed.
Finally, some cases may have a flat fee or fixed fee. These are cases that are relatively simple to handle such as a traffic ticket, uncontested divorce, or drafting a simple will.
No matter the way you will pay your attorney you should always have a written fee agreement so that you know what to expect from your lawyer and how they expect to be paid for their time and expenses while they handle your legal matter. Some attorneys may allow you to pay in increments by using a payment plan. You should discuss this possibility with your lawyer at your initial meeting.
Low-Cost Legal Help
If you are unable to afford a private lawyer there are other options to find legal representation. Many state bar and local bar associations have lawyer referral services where attorneys agree to accept cases at a lower total cost. Most communities have legal aid offices and law schools with legal clinics that provide legal advice at a free or reduced rate. If you are in need of low-cost legal services you should look into these options.
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