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How Do Attorneys Charge You for Legal Representation?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on June 03, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

How do attorneys charge clients? What is on an attorney's bill?

If you've ever looked into hiring legal representation, you've probably asked that very question, and were probably met with some confusing information.

The fact is that legal billing methods vary between attorneys, law firms, and even states. They also include strange terms like "retainer fee" that are rarely self-explanatory.

To help ease the pain of hiring an attorney, here's a basic explanation how attorneys charge clients.

Before we get to the three main attorney billing methods--hourly fees, contingency fees, and flat fees--you'll need to understand retainer fees.

A retainer fee is a set amount of money that a client pays up front to secure the services of an attorney. Ordinarily, an attorney will bill against a retainer fee, which means that any fees and costs that you accrue will be deducted from the retainer per your billing method. It's only when your costs exceed your retainer fee that you will owe your attorney more money.

The most common method by which attorneys charge clients is the hourly fees. Attorneys normally bill per fraction of an hour for things like research, phone calls, and drafting. However, this does not include your attorney's costs, such as for court filing and materials. Those will be billed separately.

Though most common in personal injury cases, often attorneys charge clients via contingency fees. This is an agreement stating that your attorney will receive a designated percentage of your recovery as payment. These agreements may or may not use retainer fees or require separate payment for costs. Also be sure to ask about what you owe if you lose.

Not all attorney's bills will look this way. Some attorneys charge clients using a flat fee. This is not that common and is primarily used for simple tasks. However, if your legal needs are complex, be wary. Though it shouldn't, a flat fee may reduce the quality of your representation.

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