A good attorney will cost you. But competent legal representation can be the difference between prohibitive fines, jail time, or community service. Biting the bullet and paying exorbitant legal fees is often your safest option.
Let’s start with the basics. How can you pay your lawyer?
Payment methods for legal representation
The simplest and most common payment method. Your attorney will establish an hourly rate, which you’ll pay for every hour they spend on your case.
If you agree upon a contingency fee, you’ll only pay your lawyer if they achieve a particular outcome. For example, you might only pay if you win the case, with the agreement that the lawyer will keep a percentage of your winnings.
“Contingency fees are usually used in tort litigation (e.g., personal injury cases),” says Monty Silley, New York Attorney. This is because these cases often yield the highest payouts, making them worth the risk for litigators.
When you retain an attorney on an hourly basis, they might ask you to pay a certain amount up front. This acts as a deposit, from which the lawyer can draw wages as they work. Any money left in the retainer at the conclusion of the case returns to you.
Fixed flat fees
Flat fees are a set amount charged for a specific service.
“Fixed fees provide more certainty…that the work will get done at a certain price, no matter how long it might take the lawyer,” says Silley. Usually, flat fees are only available for uncomplicated transactions, like standardized forms or filing procedures.
Which payment plan will you use?
The type of case you have and the lawyer you choose, will determine the terms of your payment. For example, Justin D. Kloss of Kloss of Stenger & LoTempio explains, “For businesses and individuals, if it is a simple transaction, we offer flat fees. For litigation clients, we bill hourly. For personal injury clients, we offer contingency fee arrangements where they do not pay unless we win. Typically, if there will be upfront costs for our firm, or if there is not an established business relationship, we will require an upfront retainer to bill against.”
Whether you’re putting down a retainer or paying your attorney hourly, what should you do if they’re asking for more than you can afford?
What to do when you can’t afford your lawyer
If you don’t have enough money to pay your lawyer, you still have options. Try the following methods to secure a payment plan that you can afford:
Request a contingency fee
If you don’t have the savings to compensate your attorney, contingency fees are your friend. This payment method doesn’t require you to pay anything out-of-pocket — you’ll only lose a percentage of the winnings from your case.
“For plaintiffs that cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, a contingency fee arrangement is ideal. This allows them to get good representation and not worry about the possibility of losing the case while still having to pay a legal bill,” says Silley.
“However, it’s important to note that contingency fees are not available in all types of cases,” he adds. “And even if the attorney might be open to it, Bar Association rules may limit the use of such fee arrangements.” For example, contingency fees cannot be used in criminal cases or custody disputes.
If your case qualifies for this payment structure, ask for it when shopping around for a lawyer.
Apply for a personal loan
Different personal loans come with different rates, fees and requirements, so check out what the best personal loans are to ensure that you choose the best option for you.
If a lender approves your request, you can have the lump sum in bank account within a day or two. You’ll have to repay the loan over a set term, plus interest.
To get approved, you will need fair-to-excellent credit. Be sure to apply for pre-approval before submitting any requests. Submitting too many loan applications in a row can hurt your credit score.
Pay your lawyer with a credit card
“Some, but not all, law offices will accept credit cards,” say Silley. Most of the lawyers interviewed reported that they do accept credit cards, despite having to absorb some fees to do so.
If you have a credit card with a high enough limit, you can use it to pay the legal fees. However, shopping for a new credit card may work to your advantage. If you have good enough credit to qualify, many credit cards offer interest-free introductory periods. This will let you pay off your balance without any extra costs. The catch? Once the grace period ends, interest rates will skyrocket. Only use this option if you’re sure you can pay your debts off in the introductory window.
Set up a payment plan with your lawyer
In a lawyer payment plans, you agree to compensate your lawyer in multiple payments over a set time period. While they may still ask for some money up front, it will be considerably less.
“Many attorneys offer payment plans,” says Glenn Kurtzrock of the Law Office of Glenn Kurtzrock. “Usually, we try to get a down payment of one-third to one half of the retainer fee, and then the remainder over the next few months.”
Shlomo Z. Bregman, Esq., founder of the Law Offices of Samuel M. Bregman, adds, “Usually, an attorney who is more hungry for the work will be more flexible and open-minded when it comes to payment plans.”
In some cases, the total cost of all payments in a payment plan will be higher than if you paid a lump sum up front.
If you want to pursue a payment plan, talk with a few lawyers until you find one that works for you.
A word of warning
Take note: lawyers are reticent to take on cases where their client may be unable to pay. This is because it’s hard for an attorney to pull out of a case once they’ve begun representation, even if their client is late on payments. As such, when you discuss payment plans with your prospective lawyers, be sure to sound confident about your ability to pay. If you sound too nervous, you may find it hard to lock down an attorney.
How to get help paying for a lawyer
If you don’t have the income to pay off a loan or a payment plan, you should pursue free representation. Here are a few options:
If you’re charged with a crime but cannot afford an attorney, you can apply for a public defender to represent you free of charge. The court will appoint the public defender’s office to your case, and the office will choose a lawyer for representation.
If you’re pursuing representation for family matters (rather than a criminal charge), you may also be entitled to a free attorney.
Some lawyers voluntarily take on cases “pro bono,” or “for the public good.” Unfortunately, these charitable lawyers are difficult to track down. Don’t count on this option, but contact your country or state bar association just in case.
You may have more luck finding a pro bono attorney if you have a morally compelling case, as in matters of civil rights.
Like any other financial decision, you’ll need to do research to find the best option for you. Legal offerings vary, both in cost and in flexibility. Be sure to know your budget and your needs so you can come to an agreement that suits your situation.
Need help taking out a personal loan to compensate your legal representation? SuperMoney has lined up the most competitive lenders for your convenience.
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.