The cost of hiring a lawyer can vary widely and depends on a variety of factors such as the complexity of the legal issue involved, how much time it will take to complete the case, and the expertise and personal choice of the individual lawyer.
For those seeking the services of a lawyer for the first time, there are a few basics that you should know about how lawyers typically structure their fee arrangements.
Once a client and a lawyer agree to work together, most lawyers will require a retainer agreement. A retainer agreement is a work-for-hire contract signed by both parties that details the type of work the lawyer will perform for the client, all associated fees as well as the fee arrangement (hourly fee, retainer fee, contingency fee, or flat fee) and the general rights of both parties entering into the agreement.
Hourly rates are the most common fee arrangement. Lawyers practicing in rural areas and small towns generally tend to charge less, with average hourly fees ranging anywhere from $100 to $300 depending upon the lawyer’s level of experience. Lawyers in major metropolitan areas and with expertise in specialized legal areas tend to charge higher hourly fees, with a select few charging as much as $1,000 per hour.
Lawyers with less experience that are just beginning their solo practice tend to charge lower fees in order to make themselves more attractive to new clients. And, just like in any profession, lawyers with a stellar reputation who get a lot of referred clients are in a position to charge more money for their services.
It is important to note that if a lawyer charges an hourly fee that seems to be significantly less than the average for other lawyers in the area doing the same work, there is probably a reason for that, and it might not be a good one. Conversely, higher than average hourly fees isn’t always a guarantee of quality work and professionalism.
Most lawyers charge hourly fees for civil and criminal defense cases and family law cases. For other types of cases, lawyers often charge contingency fees or flat fees.
Most lawyers that take a case on an hourly fee basis require a client to pay what is called a retainer fee before the lawyer will begin working on the case. A retainer fee is an advance lump sum payment on a lawyer’s hourly rate to handle a specific case.
Lawyers ask for a retainer fee as a good faith showing that a client actually has the money and intent to pay them for their services. Most lawyers determine their retainer fee based on their hourly rate, an estimation of how many hours it will take to complete the requested legal work as well other personal considerations.
The retainer money should be deposited in a special trust account. A lawyer’s hourly fees, as well as court filing fees and other legal expenses related to the case, are then deducted from the client’s account as they accrue. Clients should receive and review periodic billing statements from their lawyer reflecting fees deducted from their retainer money.
Lawyers will often take specific types of cases on a contingency fee basis. In these circumstances, the client may not be required to pay their lawyer any money up-front. Only if the lawyer obtains a settlement or money judgement will the client be charged a fee (typically one-third) which the lawyer will deduct from the proceeds of the case.
Contingency fee arrangements are common in the following instances.
- motor vehicle accident lawsuits
- medical malpractice claims
- other personal injury cases
- debt collection cases
Some solo practitioners unable to front the costs of court filing fees, expert testimony and reports, etc. may require a client to pay these costs out-of-pocket even in contingency fee cases. Larger law firms, however, typically pay for these costs up front and then may deduct them from the client’s final settlement or money judgment.
Certain types of legal matters may be simple and predictable enough for some lawyers to charge a flat fee to handle them.
Some lawyers charge flat rate fees for cases involving:
- wills and estates
- uncontested divorces
- simple bankruptcy filings
- minor criminal matters
- traffic citations
- elder law matters
- immigration cases
A flat fee structure is often appealing to clients who wish to know exact legal costs in advance. However, the flat fee payment agreement might not include expenses such as filing fees or may cover very limited legal services, so it is important to understand in detail what the fee will and will not cover.
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The information on this website is intended as general legal information only and should not form the basis of legal advice of any kind. Individuals seeking specific legal advice should consult a lawyer.