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Fees and Costs

How much will it cost to hire an attorney?

Before you meet with the attorney, ask about fees.

The word “retainer” can mean two things.  One is a regular sum of money (e.g. $1,000 per month) to keep him or her available for any necessary legal service.  Some businesses pay attorneys that way.  “Retainer” can also mean a deposit or down payment, held in trust, to be applied against hourly fees earned later.  The second is the more common meaning.

Hourly fee
Most lawyers charge by the hour.  However, not all lawyers charge the same hourly rate, so it is critical that you ask what their rate is and those of their support staff such as paralegals or on-staff experts.  The hourly rates of lawyers vary widely depending on the type of work and their level of experience.  Even within an individual law firm hourly rates vary widely with more experienced attorneys charging more per hour than more junior attorneys.

Fixed fees
These are popular ways to pay for routine legal work, such as simple wills, bankruptcy filings or misdemeanor or traffic infraction representation and real estate closings. 
What does it mean if an attorney advertises “Pay only if you win”?

Contingency fees
This means the attorney will accept your case but will not receive any fee unless your case is successfully completed.  The amount of their compensation is a percentage of your award. It is important to ask the attorney what their percentage is before and after legal expenses are subtracted. By law, when an attorney is retained under a contingent fee agreement the “contingency” does not cover the expenses.  This means that the client must always be responsible for case expenses regardless of the outcome.  The attorney is permitted to advance these expenses but must be reimbursed at the end of the case.

Percentages applied in various cases
The maximum fee that can be charged by law for a personal injury case is 1/3rd of the net recovery (the gross recovery less expenses).  This maximum fee applies to all cases except medical, dental or podiatric malpractice cases.  In those cases attorneys are limited to a sliding scale starting at 30% of the net recovery for the first $250,000 recovered and reducing to 10% for amounts over $1.25 Million Dollars.  For other matters such as Workers’ Compensation, Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income claims, fees are set by the judge or by the law.

Written Fee Agreement
You should always have a written fee agreement with your attorney.  This can be a document you actually sign, or a letter from the attorney setting forth the fee arrangement.  Under most circumstances, attorneys are actually required to provide you with a written fee agreement.

Tips to keep costs down:
  • Be upfront and honest with your attorney.
  • Bring copies of all relevant documents with you to your meetings.
  • Focus on business and be straight to the point.
  • Write your questions down in advance and keep them brief.
What if I cannot afford a lawyer?

There are a number of legal service agencies that provide free legal representation to people of modest means.