People often ask how much it costs to hire an attorney. The answer is “it depends.” Generally speaking, there are three fee structures or ways that attorneys charge for legal representation: contingency fee, hourly billing, or flat rate. The type of fee structure used is a function of both the particular attorney and/or law firm you consult and the type of case or representation that you require.
Contingency Fee Structure
Contingency fees are paid to an attorney contingent upon the result or legal outcome that he obtains on your behalf. If the attorney is unsuccessful in obtaining a desired result or outcome for you, then he or she does not get paid. Alternatively, if the attorney achieves a successful result, the he or she is paid at the predetermined rate or fee.
Contingency fees are most often used in personal injury cases. When you initially retain an attorney for representation in a personal injury matter, no money or fee is paid to the lawyer. Instead, you and your lawyer agree that if, and only if, they succeed in obtaining money on your behalf, they will then be paid a percentage of the recovered amount. This percentage differs by state and case type. Most often the percentage is one-third or 33% of the total recovery. However, in more complicated cases such as those involving malpractice or product liability claims, or even less complicated cases that require litigation or the actual filing of a lawsuit, attorneys may require a contingency fee of up to 40% of the total recovery.
Contingency fees are very attractive to clients because they do not require any out-of-pocket expense for representation. It is important to note, however, that contingency fees are not permitted in either criminal or family law cases such as those involving divorce, child custody or other domestic issues.
Hourly Rates Fee Structure
Hourly rates are often charged by attorneys who represent large organizations such as corporations, non-profit organizations or other entities capable of affording legal services on an hourly basis. This fee structure is most commonly used in connection with corporate law, business litigation and insurance defense. Hourly rate billing is the most expensive type of fee arrangement for clients.
In this circumstance, you are billed on a monthly or quarterly basis for the time actually spent by your attorney or his agent performing work on your case during the billing period. Lawyers who charge on an hourly basis bill for everything to include, but not limited to, phone calls, copies, consultations, letters and email, research, court appearances, travel time, and any other time spent working on a case.
Before agreeing to an hourly fee structure, it is important to know what types of services are billed; how often; in what time-increments; and at what rate. Firms may charge varying rates depending upon who in the organization actually performs the billed service such as a secretary, investigator, paralegal, associate attorney or senior-level attorney. As stated above, hourly billing is most often employed by lawyers who represent corporations or wealthy clients. It is also used in connection with family law work; estate and tax planning; elder law; areas of civil law other than personal injury; and complex criminal defense cases.
Flat Rate Fee Structure
The third and last type of fee structure is the flat rate fee. With this arrangement, you and your attorney agree upon a flat rate for all legal representation pertaining to a particular matter regardless of the time and effort needed to perform the agreed-upon legal work. Some clients prefer this form of payment because it limits their financial exposure and provides them with certainty regarding the cost of legal representation. Lawyers who charge flat rates take the risk that the fee they quote will fairly compensate them for the estimated time needed to perform the required legal service.
In some instances, the lawyer may complete his work in less time than expected, and therefore, enjoy a financial windfall from a flat fee arrangement. Alternatively, and in many cases, lawyers underestimate how much time and effort is required on a particular case. In these instances, lawyers assume this risk that the quoted flat rate is not fair compensation for the actual work required. Flat rates are very typical with criminal defense cases. Many attorneys charge a flat rate for all pretrial representation related to a case, and then a second installment flat rate if and when a case is scheduled for trial.
Choosing The Best Attorney for You
Now that you have a better understand of the types of legal fees, the question remains: how much does it cost to hire an attorney. The answer is still “it depends.” Legal fees vary by geographic area; the type and nature of the case involved; and the particular attorney you choose to hire. Clients are often under the mistaken belief that all attorneys are the same – one size fits all. This could not be further from the truth.
Attorneys, even those who practice in the same geographic area and work on the same types of cases, are not alike. Each attorney has his or her own unique experience and background. For instance, some lawyers have a lot of trial experience and some do not. Researching an attorney’s true experience and background can be difficult. With the legalization of advertising for attorneys, many try to dazzle potential clients with fancy websites and colorful language regarding their skills and abilities. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Meet with the attorney in person; ask around about his or her reputation; and request examples of cases they have worked on in the past.
Aside from experience, lawyers also have different values and personalities. Some lawyers are more hardworking and dedicated to client needs and concerns than others. For instance, how many times have you heard the complaint that “my lawyer never returns phone calls” or “my lawyer is always out of the office.” These complaints do not describe all lawyers equally. Some lawyers return client calls the very same day the client leaves the message. Others work nights and weekends to be available to clients who otherwise work during the day and cannot meet with their lawyer during normal business hours.
The bottom line is that when it comes to lawyers, just like restaurants, automobiles and other consumer goods, the old adage holds true: you get what you pay for. If you prefer a lawyer who charges McDonald’s prices, you will certainly find one. However, if you choose to hire such a lawyer, do not be surprised if their representation has the poor quality of a McDonald’s hamburger. Perhaps you prefer quality and competence over discount prices.
Whatever your needs may be, take the time to find a lawyer who is right for you. When it comes to legal representation, choose an attorney who is qualified, competent, experienced, caring and devoted to your case. After all, what price is too high to pay for your rights and your future?