Understanding and Negotiating Legal Fees


You've Decided That You Need A Lawyer.

What You Do Next Will Have A Major Effect On The Final Outcome And Your Peace Of Mind.

Where do you find a lawyer? The sources you can check are endless. Here are a few recommendations:

Need a Lawyer? LegalMatch allows you to present your case, and respond only to qualified lawyers. It's Free & Confidential. LegalMatch's free legal matching system provides access to pre-screened lawyers through a simple, three-step process. As soon as you present your case, instant e-mail notifications are sent to lawyers that match your specified legal practice area and geographic location. You may begin to receive attorney responses in as little as 24 hours. Then it's up to you to choose the right lawyer for your case based on the responses you receive and the qualifications you're looking for.

Online Legal Documents by RocketLawyer.com. Easy Access on RocketLawyer Legal Services. Rocket Lawyer is a hybrid which offers both legal forms and lawyer matching services. You can download the Divorce Worksheet to help you prepare, download documents to allow you to file on your own, or consult with a divorce lawyer in your area. You fill out a simple form about your case and lawyers will contact you.

Your state or local bar associations may be found in the phone book or on the web and can be contacted for names.

Referrals are always a good source. Ask around for a lawyer someone used who they thought did a good job.

There's always the Yellow Pages.

Practical Considerations

  • Convenience of the lawyer's office.

  • Convenience of office hours. Some lawyers will see you outside 9 to 5.

  • Experience and expertise. Eighteen states have programs certifying lawyers as specialists in certain types of law. (See Resources for more information.)

  • Hourly rates and related information.

Types of Fees

  • A Consult Fee is a fee charged by a lawyer to hear a potential client's case. This can be a flat fee, an hourly charge or no fee at all.

  • A Contingent Fee means that the attorney will be paid only if you win, and will then receive a hefty percentage in the range of 30-45% of monies recovered. These typically don't occur in certain types of cases such as criminal matters and divorce. Even where a contingent fee is possible the client is still responsible for all expenses.

  • Costs vary but generally include any expense incurred not covered by the lawyer's hourly rate. Examples include: filing fees for court documents, mileage, copies, faxes, service of papers, parking, postage, telephone toll charges, subpoena fees to name some but by no means all.

  • Experts such as independent custody evaluators or small business evaluators are two examples. Each will charge for time spent including preparation, preparing of reports and testifying.

  • Fees Set by a Judge involve cases in which a judge or hearing officer may establish a fee based on the complexity of the issues and the work involved. Fees in probate cases are an example.

  • A Flat Fee will sometimes be accepted by a lawyer generally for cases where the lawyer can estimate with some confidence the time required for settling the matter. These occur commonly in routine service cases like drafting a simple will, real estate settlements or uncontested divorces.

  • The Full Service Package including legal advice, fact investigation, legal research, correspondence and pleadings (court documents) preparation; negotiation; representation at hearings; formal discovery; trial. The client retains the lawyer who provides all services needed within the package. The scope of needed services in decided unilaterally by the lawyer who then bills the clients accordingly. This is the high priced option.

  • Hourly rate charges are based on the amount of time the lawyer spends on the matter. The rate is dependent upon the lawyer's experience or the volume of demand. Some of the work will likely be handled by law clerks, legal assistants, associate attorneys and paralegal and should be billed at a reduced rate.

  • Minimum Billing Increments occur when an hourly rate is charged. You are not billed to the minute but rather in increments for time spent under an hour. Examples are increments charged by the quarter hour. That means that if 10 minutes are spent you will still be charged for 15. You pay less if the attorney bills by tenth hours. So if your attorney spends 12 minutes and bills by the quarter hour you will be charged for .25 of an hour rather than .20 if your attorney is charging by tenths. These add up over time.

  • Negotiated Percentages are often used for debt collection. The fee is a percentage of the amount claimed or collected.

  • Payment Arrangements or plans typically require monthly payments and vary greatly from lawyer to lawyer.

  • Referral Fees are sometimes charged by lawyers who refer you to another lawyer to handle your matter. The first lawyer may ask for a portion of the total fee you may. Referral fees may be prohibited under state codes of professional responsibility unless certain criteria are met.

  • Retainers are advance payments to be used toward defraying hourly fees and incurred costs. When the amount is depleted the lawyer may request an additional retainer or may simply continue to bill on a periodic basis. Lawyers must follow strict regulations for safekeeping and accounting for these client funds. Whether or not you have an established relationship and payment history with the lawyer will impact the amount and recurring nature of the retainer.

  • Written Retainer Agreements between lawyer and client are legally binding once signed by both parties. You can still fire the lawyer or complain informally or formally about fees charged and services provided and the lawyer can still quit.

    These agreements clearly set forth all fees and costs to be charged. As well as all other matters agreed between you and the lawyer such as a payment plan, limitation on hours, services to be provided or any other promises or understandings. All should be clearly set forth. This document will force you and your lawyer to be clear about your expectations and may save you future grief. You will need this document if a dispute does arise later.

Remember the rules that govern the ethical conduct of lawyers require that all fees be "reasonable." This generally means that they be fair and competitive as well as reflect the skill required to obtain the desired results.

Interviewing and Choosing a Lawyer

  • As with any major hire, ask for references. Remember
    YOU have to be satisfied that you are getting your money's worth.

  • Ask about payment practices.
    How often will you be billed, what forms of payment does the lawyer accept, how long do you have to pay a bill, and if payment plans are available.

  • Ask about how potential problems between the two of you will be resolved. Will the lawyer agree to mediation, binding arbitration if a serious dispute arises or will you have to litigate?

  • Ask about possible outcomes. Ask for the lawyer's assessment of your cases strengths and weaknesses. How often does the lawyer settle cases like your and how often does s/he litigate? What is the lawyer's win rate at trial?

  • Ask about the lawyer's billing practices, hourly rate, minimum billing increment, cost items passed on to you ( including amounts e.g. are faxes $1 or $5 per fax or per page); who else will be working on your case and their hourly rates; the lawyer's in court vs. office hourly rate; need for and amount of retainer.

  • Ask about the lawyer's policy regarding client involvement? Can you reduce fees by undertaking some of the work? Would s/he be willing to serve as your "coach" from the sidelines while you undertook to do most of the work? Some lawyers really enjoy this role but clients rarely ask.

  • Ask about the lawyer's style. Do they welcome client input and assistance? How long does s/he take to return phone calls? What documents are typically provided to you? What expectations does the lawyer have of you? Does the lawyer like to teach and share what s/he knows or regards client questions as meddlesome? Make sure the style is one with which you are comfortable.

  • Ask for an assessment, based on the lawyer's experience, of what the cost is likely to be. How long will it take? How many hours are likely to be required. Realize that many factors influence the final bill but ask for ballpark figures.

  • Ask to see a standard fee or retainer/representation agreement for your review. Make sure you are comfortable with all the provisions or be willing to negotiate and offer options for those with which you are not.

  • Ask who else will be working on your case, their training and their rates. Who will be consulted if the lawyer is unsure about some aspect of your case? Will the lawyer recommend another lawyer if his/her firm is not able to handle all or part of your case? Will referral fees be involved and how will they affect you?

  • Inquire about the lawyer's experience and usual areas of practice. What kind of cases does the lawyer most often handle? How long has s/he practiced law? Are most clients corporate or individual?

  • Interview more than one lawyer before you make your choice, no matter how good the recommendation was. Remember there is no such thing as a standard fee. Everything is negotiable or, at least, open for discussion. Many lawyers will see you without charging a consult fee or will be willing to negotiate the fee.

CAVEAT: Run for the hills if a lawyer proposes securing her/his right to collect a fee against a mortgage or deed of trust on your house or other property. These agreements an illegal in most states but some lawyers have made a killing using them.

Be a Good Client

  • Avoid unnecessary phone calls and be concise in your communication. Get your hand holding from a friend or counselor.

  • Be Completely Honest and include all the facts especially those you think might hurt you. (These will invariably come out anyway and it is better for you lawyer to be forewarned.) Remember all lawyers are bound by strict rules of confidentiality regarding lawyer client communications.

  • Be informed and keep your lawyer informed.

  • Be organized. Bring all documents and necessary papers to the first meeting. Summarize all relevant facts and provide a written summary.

  • Gather all pertinent information before meeting with your lawyer. Provide names and contact information of all of those involved.

  • Keep your lawyer updated as things change.

  • Pay your bills on time. Or be honest about your financial situation, ask for a payment plan and stick to it.

  • Recommend your lawyer to others if you are happy with the services provided and let your lawyer know.

  • Stay Informed. Read all the documents in your case as well as information about the area of law. There are many legal sites on the Internet that provide a wealth of information. In addition non profits, trade associations, and professional associations may provide basic legal information in their areas of interest. Educating yourself will save you money and save your lawyer from having to teach you the basics.

  • Strive to be accurate and objective and to not let emotions cloud the information you provide.

  • Write down the questions you want to ask in advance.

Strategies for Lowering Costs

  • Ask the lawyer to be your coach while you do most of it yourself.

  • Avoid, generally prepaid legal service plans. Most low cost plans only cover a few phone consultations and some basic services. After that you receive a discount for other legal work. The resulting fee has not proven to be better than what you can get by doing your homework, and interviewing several lawyers on your own. More expensive plans do cover some thing like bankruptcy or drunk driving, but few people need a lawyer more than a couple of times in their life and this may be unnecessary insurance.

  • Be clear about you your expectations and what is being provided and get it in writing.

  • Be willing to help out on routine tasks. You can do a lot of the work yourself like lining up witnesses, making phone calls, or delivering or gathering documents.

  • Stay Informed and up to date.

  • Unbundle necessary services into discrete affordable tasks. NOTE: This approach was pioneered by Forrest S. Mosten the "Father of Unbundling." You can read more about it at his site. Unbundling Legal Services

  • Use a variety of professionals piecemeal as the need arises.

  • Use non lawyer professionals for tasks within their expertise like accountants or tax preparers for preparation of financial documents, insurance agents for insurance advice, real estate brokers for property valuations or independent paralegals for routine form preparation.

For more about divorcing collaboratively, click on one of the links below.

To learn more about other conflict resolution topics, click on any of the links below.


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