If you require a lawyer, you are probably wondering what legal representation for your case is going to cost you. There are various types of attorney fees and actual costs will vary based on several factors. These include where you live and the experience level of the attorney. We will also explain the major variables when calculating attorney fees for a particular legal case.
We’ll let the experts, the lawyers themselves, break it all down for you. Then, we’ll show you how to finance legal fees and find the right lawyer.
Let’s get started.
Types of Attorney Fees
There are four basic ways lawyers get paid: an hourly fee, a retainer, a flat fee, and a contingency fee. Here’s a closer look at each of the payment types.
1) Hourly Fees
Joshua J. Wagner, Personal Injury Attorney at Vasilaros-Wagner, explains how hourly rates work. He says the lawyer bills you for the time spent working, and it’s often done using a portion of the hour. For example, they may charge you for .1, .2, or .3, of an hour at a time.
Erin N. Klein, Esq., attorney at Klein Law Group with over 21 years of experience, further explains how the billing works, saying, “If a lawyer charges $250 per hour, they will charge in increments of six minutes or tenths-of-an-hour.
Speaking to Your Lawyer can Get Expensive Quickly
The lawyer will bill for their time, which will include email, phone calls, document preparation, etc. For example, if an attorney takes a client’s phone call and the call lasts 10 minutes, the lawyer will bill 12 minutes or 2/10 of an hour for a total of $50 for that phone call.”
Christopher Earley, Esq. from the Law Office of Christopher Earley, says, “You pay per hour for the amount of time your lawyer and his (or her) staff spends on your case. This is by far the most common way that lawyers charge. Remember, however, that attorneys also charge costs like copying, travel, and mailing — some also charge fees for legal research.”
Some lawyers will charge an upfront retainer for their services. Then, they will charge you hourly, as explained above, deducting from the retainer.
When is a Retainer Commonly Used?
Loren Costantini of Lawrence J. Costantini, lawyer of over 47 years explains, “The fee structure in criminal law must be hourly. The attorney will charge an upfront retainer, which is usually large enough to cover the cost of the entire case and then will bill against it at an hourly rate until it is gone. The attorney will then request more money if necessary.”
He adds, “Family law also must be charged at an hourly rate. Again, a retainer is requested and then billed against the attorney’s hourly rate until it is dissipated, and then they will request it be refreshed.”
3) Flat Fee
“This is as it sounds. You pay a flat fee for the whole case. This is common in traffic tickets and criminal cases,” says Wagner. Earley explains it as, “You want X and we charge Y for it. Typically, these include bankruptcies, wills, traffic matters, and corporate formation.”
Flat Fees are Common for Certain Cases
Klein adds, “A flat fee is common in the area of criminal law and bankruptcy law. For example, a client comes in to retain us for a chapter seven bankruptcy; we will charge a flat fee of $3,500 to accomplish the requested service.”
“The old billable hour is going away. Many lawyers are moving towards a flat fee model where the price is negotiated before work begins. Lawyers and clients like this better because everyone knows at the start what it is going to cost. However, divorce is still usually handled on an hourly basis,” says James O. Hacking, III of Hacking Law Practice, LLC.
4) Contingency Fee
“This is where a law firm only gets paid if they win your case. If they don’t win, there is no bill,” says Wagner. Earley explains it as, “If you recover X, we get Y%. Typically, it’s a third of the recovery and these arrangements are almost always associated with the plaintiff’s work, like personal injury cases.
Klein elaborates, “This fee structure is generally used in a personal injury matter. That is, a client will not pay a fee unless the attorney is successful in recovering money on behalf of the client. Contingency fees are illegal when it comes to criminal law, matrimonial, and family law matters.”
Costantini adds, “These types of cases are limited by the ethical rules (set by the American Bar Association).”
Now that we’ve covered the main payment structures, let’s talk about how much lawyers charge, on average.
What are Standard Lawyer Fees?
“There are no ‘standard’ attorney’s fees, but the hourly charge typically ranges from $250 to $600/hour depending on where you live and the size of the law firm. Some lawyers do state work for $50/hour, and law firms in New York City that far exceed the $600/hour mark,” says Costantini.
The bottom line is that fees can and do vary greatly from one lawyer to the next. Here’s why.
Why the Difference in Price?
“The price to hire a lawyer will vary based on the type of case, where you live, how much experience the lawyer has, and what type of firm the lawyer works for. There are too many factors to be able to make a blanket statement about how much it costs to hire a lawyer,” says Ruth Carter, Esq., Owner/Attorney at Carter Law Firm, PLLC.
She adds, “I’m licensed in Arizona, and our State Bar does an attorney hourly rate survey every three years that allows lawyers to see how their rates compare to their peers. If someone were in the market to hire a lawyer, they would probably have to call around to make a price comparison (most lawyers don’t publicize their rates).”
Klein says, “Standard lawyer fees vary from market to market. It’s not so much that the price depends on the type of lawyer, but on the experience, education, knowledge, and training of a particular lawyer working on the matter. For example, if a second-year lawyer is working on a matter, that lawyer may charge $275 an hour. If a 20-year lawyer is working on the same file, that lawyer may charge $600 per hour.”
Fees Vary With Experience
Lastly, Ramsey A. Bahrawy, Esq. of Bahrawy Law Offices says, “The fee lawyer charges depends on many factors: the lawyer’s experience, the location of the law office (metropolitan areas have higher operating expenses), the lawyer’s expertise in a specialized area, and the complexity of the legal matter.”
He adds, “Consider that a lawyer with a lot of experience may be able to handle a complex problem more quickly and efficiently ( i.e., work faster and more effectively). The hourly rate may be higher, but, in the end, the total fee may be the same or even a little less.”
The Firm and Case both Play a Role
In summary, the key factors that impact the price are location, case type, case complexity, law office type, and the experience, education, and expertise of the lawyer. Further, you’ll have to contact lawyers to find out what they charge.
Average Fees for Common Cases
1) How Much Does it Cost to Talk to a Lawyer?
“Many lawyers give free, 30-minute initial consultations, while others charge for them,” says Earley. He adds, “Outside of family law questions, like divorce and child support, typically the initial consultation is free. Unless you know the attorney by reputation or recommendation, I would not suggest paying for an initial consult for non-family matters.”
Hacking says, “Some lawyers charge a consulting fee, and if they end up getting hired, they credit that to the legal fee to be paid.”
Can You Get a Free Consultation?
As for Klein, he explains, “Personally, my firm offers a 30-minute complimentary consultation. Each firm has its different fee models, and the more deeply rooted a lawyer is in their local market, the less likely they are to provide a complimentary consultation.”
He adds, “There are no competent lawyers who are going to give legal advice without compensation. So, when somebody comes into our office for a complimentary consultation, we are just going to answer general questions, not questions nor advice on that person’s particular situation.”
Why Doesn’t a Law Firm Give Legal Advice?
The reason is that, if I give that person legal advice, they may misinterpret what I said, go out and do something that harms them, and they will come back and point the finger at me. As such, legal advice is not dispensed, but general questions on the law are answered.”
2) Does Cost Depend on the Case Severity?
“The hourly fee largely depends on the county, the lawyer’s experience, and the complexity of charges involved. A simple misdemeanor defense may cost no more than $1,000, while a major felony charge could cost tens of thousands,” says Earley.
Constantini answers along the same lines saying, “A misdemeanor charge has degrees of seriousness and is charged accordingly; the retainer can range from $1,500 to $5,000. A felony charge also has different degrees and retainers can range from $3,500 to many thousands of dollars.”
So, it will depend on the lawyer you choose and the specifics of your case.
3) How Much Does an Estate Plan Cost?
“For estate planning, you usually pay a predetermined set fee for a set of estate documents. The price depends on the complexity of the estate. A simple estate could cost $1,500, but a more complicated one could be significantly more,” says Earley.
Hacking says, “This can depend on the size of the estate. Some lawyers offer very cheap estate plans, but more complex cases can cost from $10,000 to $20,000.”
Constantini estimates along the same lines, saying, “Estate plans can range from $10,000 to much higher, again, completely dependent upon the size of the estate.”
What Factors Influence the Cost?
He explains, “Estate planning is a specialty and is completely contingent upon the size of the estate involved and complexity of the work. Some attorneys charge a flat fee, but typically there are retainers with hourly billing.”
4) How Much Does a Lawyer Cost for a Divorce?
“The upfront retainer can be $1,500 for a very simple divorce with no issues, to a $15,000 + retainer when the issues and the monetary value of the assets involved are sizeable. You can count on a minimum retainer of $5,000 for divorces with a hint of custody issues,” says Constantini.
Do All Divorces Cost the Same Amount?
The simple answer is no. Not all divorces are created equal, so they are not charged equally. Like other types of cases, the charge for a divorce attorney largely depends on the complexity of the case and the experience level of the attorney.
The upfront retainer can be $1,500 for a very simple divorce with no issues, to a $15,000 + retainer when the issues and the monetary value of the assets involved are sizeable. You can count on a minimum retainer of $5,000 for divorces with a hint of custody issues”
Pro Bono Cases: An Exception to the Rule
In some cases, lawyers will work a case for a low-income client for no fee. This is referred to as pro bono. Although rare, if you are in need of legal services and are likely not able to pay, you have the ability to consult with law firms and find out if this in an option for you.
How to Finance Lawyer Costs
If you need to come up with the money to pay for a lawyer, here’s how to finance the costs.
Credit cards are an option as you can charge the costs upfront and then slowly pay off your balance over time. Whether this will work for you depends on a couple of factors including:
- If you can get approved for a credit card
- The credit line you can get
- Interest costs
- Benefits of the card
- Promotional offers
- How long it will take you to pay it off
Approval for a credit card will depend on your creditworthiness. Lenders will check your credit report to determine if they will extend a credit line to you. If they do, it will also determine the amount of the credit line you get, and your annual percentage rate (APR), which determines how much you pay in interest each year. Remember, the lower the APR, the better. Low APR means you pay less in intered on any unpaid balance each month.
What Happens if You are Denied?
If you are denied a credit card, that means the bank deemed your credit unworthy of an unsecured loan. Try building your credit score over time by making on-time payments, paying your bill in full, and not opening too many credit cards.
Pay for Legal Services with a Credit Card
For this option to work, you’ll need to get a credit line high enough to cover your legal fees. Further, you’ll need to estimate how long it will take you to pay off the fees so you can calculate the cost of borrowing.
Some cards offer benefits and promotions which make them a better deal. For example, an offer that will be very helpful in this situation is the no-interest introductory period. If you sign up for a new card with this promotion, you can potentially carry a balance anywhere from six months to almost two years without paying any interest.
Another option is a personal loan. This is a lump sum that a lender extends to you based on your credit and financial profile. The loan amount, interest rate, fees, and repayment term will depend on the lender’s evaluation of you as well as your credit score and creditworthiness.
Similar to credit cards, determining whether this will enable you to pay your legal fees will depend on what you get approved for. Fortunately, it’s very easy to find out without negatively impacting your credit score. You can use Supermoney’s personal loan engine, which will ask you a few questions and return pre-approval offers from various lenders within a few minutes. This way, you can quickly find out if this option will work for you.
The advantages of personal loans are that the loan amounts are often higher than credit cards and the interest rates are usually lower. The drawbacks are that some lenders charge origination fees, so you will have to shop around and compare the total costs to figure out which deal is best.
Take Care of Your Legal Fees
Lawsuits can be very stressful, and part of that stress comes from the costs. To help keep them under control, start by shopping around for a lawyer. Look up lawyers in your area and read reviews from past clients. Contact those that look promising to find out how they charge for your type of case and what the estimated cost will be.
Then, compare the costs, expertise, and experience of each lawyer to find the best fit. The next step is to find the right financing solution. Weigh a personal loan against a credit card to find the right fit for you.
Personal loans have been an increasingly popular option due to their accessibility and competitive rates, so check out what the best personal loans are to ensure that you choose the best option for you. To compare lenders, click here.
Once you sort your financing, you can pay your lawyer, get on with the case, and get back to normal life as soon as possible.
How Much Should You Pay for a Lawyer?
The cost of a lawyer all depends on the experience level of the lawyer and the type of case you need to hire them for. In general, a more experienced lawyer charges higher prices than a less-experienced one. Additionally, the complexity of your case plays a role, in that more complex cases warrant higher legal fees. Since most offices offer a free consultation, it may be wise to “shop around” for a lawyer that you feel will represent you well at a fair cost.
Jessica Walrack is a personal finance writer at SuperMoney, The Simple Dollar, Interest.com, Commonbond, Bankrate, NextAdvisor, Guardian, Personalloans.org and many others. She specializes in taking personal finance topics like loans, credit cards, and budgeting, and making them accessible and fun.