When you are looking for an attorney, some of your first questions may be about fees. There are several different types of fee structures that attorneys may use, and the same attorney may offer a choice of options or use different structures for different types of work. Understanding attorney fees can be an important aspect of choosing your lawyer. You can often negotiate rates with a lawyer, especially if you handle some parts of the case yourself. You should make sure to put the fee structure in a written fee agreement so that you know what to expect from your lawyer.
This is a type of fee that depends on the amount of time that the lawyer spends on the case or project. It is usually broken into increments of 10 minutes or 15 minutes. Hourly fees are the most common type of fee arrangement. If you are hiring an attorney who works with clerks, paralegals, or administrative assistants, you should find out whether they are doing some of the work. You should be charged a lower fee for work that is not done by a lawyer. In some cases, moreover, lawyers may charge you a lower hourly rate for simple tasks like online research compared to representing you at a hearing in court.
This is the structure generally used by plaintiff’s lawyers in personal injury cases and other cases in which the client may have few resources, but the payout may be substantial. A contingency fee means that you do not pay a fee other than expenses unless you win. If you win, the lawyer receives a certain percentage of the settlement or judgment in your favor, most often about 30 percent or one-third. The percentage may be greater if the case goes to trial than if it is resolved through a settlement.
Some states do not allow lawyers to charge contingency fees in certain types of cases, such as divorce cases or criminal cases. Also, you should not expect this fee arrangement if you are a defendant, since you probably will not receive money from the litigation.
If your legal matter is fairly simple and limited, your lawyer may charge you a flat fee. This is a certain amount that you will pay, regardless of how much time the lawyer spends. Flat fees appear most often in matters that are not truly adversarial and often just involve completing forms. You may pay your attorney a flat fee if you are seeking an uncontested divorce or completing a simple will.
When you hire an attorney, you may pay them a retainer to denote that they are your lawyer and will be responsible for handling your legal matters. This is a concept similar to a down payment. The client puts the retainer into an account from which the lawyer takes funds to cover the costs of the matter as they arise. Retainer fees are often non-refundable as long as they are reasonable.
When one lawyer refers a client to another lawyer, the lawyer who provided the referral usually gets a percentage of the value of the case. This is often determined between the two lawyers, although the client must agree to the arrangement, and it must be objectively reasonable. Some states either prohibit referral fees or have strict rules governing them.
Legal Costs Beyond Attorney Fees
In addition to paying your lawyer for their time and effort, you may need to cover certain court costs. Some attorneys include these costs as part of their fee, while others charge them separately. Some common examples of these additional costs include filing fees, deposition costs, photocopying, mailing costs, fees to retain expert witnesses, fees for process servers, and travel expenses. Since the lawyer has probably handled similar matters before, they should be able to give you a rough estimate of these costs.
Getting Low-Cost or Free Legal Help
Unless you are a criminal defendant, you do not have a right to a free lawyer. However, you may be able to get free help through a legal aid organization that receives public funds. Some of the cases that these organizations handle include government benefits claims, landlord-tenant disputes, consumer issues, health care issues, and some simple estate planning and family law cases. You would need to show that you meet the criteria to qualify for receiving services from a certain organization, which are usually based on a prospective client’s income. You should be aware that these organizations often have overburdened caseloads, so you may not receive the same level of attention and care that you would from an attorney who is receiving a fee.
Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) handle certain legal matters that may have an important impact on society. These tend to involve alleged violations of constitutional rights, such as protections against discrimination or freedom of speech. If your matter involves this type of issue, you may want to see if an attorney at the ACLU or a similar organization will handle it for free.
Law firms often allocate some of their resources to public interest (“pro bono”) work for people in an income bracket that is close to the federal poverty level. This can be a great way to obtain knowledgeable representation at low or no cost, although an attorney’s paid work for the firm’s regular clients usually takes priority over pro bono clients.
Legal clinics at law schools also provide free legal services in some areas. A licensed attorney supervises the clinic, but law students handle much of the work in the case, including communications with the client. You should be aware that law students are not licensed attorneys, so the quality of assistance may be uneven.