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Ways to Save on Legal Fees

Everyone knows that attorney fees are high. Some people put off seeking legal advice because it is so expensive. Unfortunately, if you have a legal problem, you can't always wait to find the right attorney. Criminal cases are the only scenario in which you will gain access to an attorney if you cannot afford one.

Some types of cases require a lawyer with specialized knowledge, like probate or family law. Some cases are time-intensive, like personal injury claims, which can take months or years to resolve. Your particular case determines what kind of legal representation you need and what it will cost. With a little forethought and homework, you can reduce the cost of your legal services.

Consider Low-Cost/No-Cost Alternatives

The adage “the one who represents themself has a fool for a client" isn't always true. You can handle some legal issues alone or with minimal legal help. Legal aid services at courthouses can help you fill out and file forms. They cannot provide legal advice, but they may provide referrals to low-cost firms or pro bono attorneys.

Some low-cost alternatives to consider:

  • Arbitration/mediation: If all parties agree, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) can be a less costly way of resolving disputes. ADR involves the parties meeting with a neutral third party who helps them find agreement. ADR is useful when the matter involves small amounts of money or nuisance issues.
  • Small claims court: Small claims courts handle cases with sums under a statutory amount, usually under $10,000. Parties represent themselves, and attorney representation is not permitted. Business disputes and contract cases are common in small claims.
  • Summary dissolution: What's also called a “simple divorce" is a good option if both parties want to go their separate ways with as little hassle as possible. If you and your spouse have no children and few assets, you can file the paperwork yourselves, pay the filing fees, and receive your divorce decree without an attorney. It is still advisable to consult an attorney to ensure you file all the paperwork according to state laws.

Pick the Right Attorney

Use a good attorney referral service when picking your lawyer. Finding the right lawyer for your case can save you hundreds of dollars, no matter what the final cost. You should be sure you and your lawyer work well together. You want an attorney who responds to your questions and is upfront about your chances in court.

A large firm may not be the best choice for your case. Personal injury firms that spend millions of dollars advertising may be no better than the solo practitioner down the street, and the small firm may charge less. The amount of time the firm has to spend on your case relates to the legal costs. You should consider who is more likely to give your case the attention it needs.

Negotiate Your Fee Agreement

Once you've found an attorney, the fee agreement is the next place to lower your costs. There are many types of fee agreements. If you explain your circumstances, attorneys are usually open to negotiation in legal fee agreements. State law sets some fee agreements, but your attorney will explain these to you.

  • Fixed fee agreements are often used for consultations, routine cases like DUIs or uncontested divorces, and some wills and trusts. A flat fee may be converted into a retainer if the case turns out to be more complex.
  • Contingency fee agreements are used in personal injury cases and mass torts for which the client will ideally receive a settlement once the case is over. The attorney's fees are based on the amount of the settlement, capped at about one-third by state law. Divorce cases cannot be charged on a contingency basis.
  • Hourly fees are used in most other cases. The attorney charges per hour, and the fee depends on who does the legal work, such as the attorney or a paralegal.

You can negotiate a payment plan if you cannot make large payments. Law firms, like other businesses, typically bill monthly. You can offer to make a down payment and then make alternate payments when you are able. Attorneys will usually work with clients on fee arrangements.

Be Prepared

Your attorney will ask you for documents and other information at your first consultation. You can save time and money by gathering and organizing all those documents to bring to the office for your second meeting. The time spent on your case includes the time spent going through your paperwork. Handing your attorney's paralegal a huge box of unsorted tax returns, bank statements, check stubs, and handwritten notes guarantees you a large number of hours on your bill and an expensive bill in the mail.

Your Attorney's Time Is Your Money

All the time you spend with your attorney is billable time. Phone calls, text messages, and emails take time and can be billed to your case. Many clients do not realize it and will spend hours on the phone discussing their cases. Then they get shocked by a huge bill for “meetings."

Your legal matter is important, but your attorney has many other cases to manage. Time spent on your case is time not spent on other cases. Lawyer fees are charged to account for that time. Your attorney should let you know when anything happens during your case.

Discuss Cost Early

Don't be afraid to tell your attorney during your initial consultation if money is an issue. An experienced attorney has heard it before. They will be able to give you an estimate of the cost and hours your case will take. If you can't afford their services, they can refer you to another attorney who can provide good representation at a lower fee.

Ask about any “hidden" fees or costs. Your fee agreement should spell out everything you might have to pay. Ask to have the final say over any extra costs, such as:

  • Expert witness fees
  • Depositions and court reporters
  • Travel expenses or drive time
  • Photocopying and duplication fees
  • Court costs beyond filing fees

Some of these fees are necessary, but you should know what they are for, why they're needed, and whether there are cheaper alternatives.

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