Do you need a lawyer for your legal matter? If so, you may be concerned about costs. Attorneys have a reputation for being expensive, but the reality is legal services are often far more affordable than you might think. Sometimes, such as in personal injury matters, hiring an attorney may cost you nothing at all, unless the attorney gets your results.
For any legal problem you confront, look at your attorney as an investment. Whether you need a lawyer because you’ve suffered a personal injury, were accused of a crime, or are going through a divorce, choosing the right lawyer can have a direct impact on your rights, your finances, and your life.
Understanding different types of fee arrangements
The type of lawyer you need will affect how and how much the lawyer you select gets paid. Here’s an overview of some typical fee arrangements between lawyers and clients, and the types of matters in which they’re used.
A contingent fee is a fee that depends on the outcome of a case; or more simply, it’s a fee you only pay to your attorney if you win.
Contingent fees (also sometimes called contingency fees) are most common in personal injury and workers’ compensation matters where an attorney represents a client in a legal action seeking money from an insurance company or at-fault party.
In the typical contingent fee arrangement, the lawyer and client agree that the fee for the lawyer’s services will consist of a percentage of any money the attorney secures on the client’s behalf. These days the percentage can vary based on the amount of effort the case may involve and the amount of money at stake. State law requires that everyone agrees to contingent fees in writing before an attorney begins work on a client’s case.
Outside of personal injury and workers’ compensation cases, many lawyers charge by the hour for their services. As with other fee arrangements, the lawyer must disclose the fee upfront to the client in a written agreement. Typically, a lawyer will charge one rate for their time, and other rates for work performed by other lawyers or legal professionals who may work on a case.
Lawyers who bill by the hour must provide regular billing statements to clients that explain the nature of the work they performed and the amount of time they spent. The expectation is that clients will pay the lawyers’ invoices regularly.
Cases in which hourly fee arrangements are common include:
- Some criminal defense matters
- Some family law matters
- Tax matters
- Business litigation
- Representing defendants in civil cases
A flat-rate fee is, as the name suggests, a one-size-fits-all fee for a lawyer’s services on a legal matter.
Attorneys who offer flat rate fees typically do so in matters in which they can predict the amount of time and work they will need to spend, such as:
- Some minor criminal defense matters (such as DUIs)
- Uncontested divorces
- Wills and estate planning
- Contract review or drafting for businesses
4 Billing Terms You Should Know
It’s natural, and important, for clients to focus on the cost of an attorney. As when you hire any professional, you should want to get good value for your money.
In evaluating the cost of legal services, it helps to know the lingo.
Here are some explanations of common terms you may run across in reading a proposed fee agreement or discussing fees with an attorney:
- Consultation: A meeting before hiring an attorney. If you want to hire an attorney, start with an initial consultation. This is your opportunity to interview your lawyer before you sign on the dotted line. Many attorneys offer a free initial consultation, so use this as your opportunity to talk to a few different attorneys until you find the one that’s right for you.
- Retainer: A fee paid in advance against the performance of future legal services. The word retainer can refer to several types of pre-payment arrangements. In a general retainer relationship, a client pays money to an attorney periodically to keep that attorney’s services available whenever they’re needed. This sort of retainer typically covers all work an attorney does in a defined time within a defined scope of work. Another type of retainer, sometimes called a retaining fee, consists of money paid in advance against an attorney’s periodic hourly billings. The attorney deposits the retainer funds in a trust account and draws against them as needed to pay the attorney’s invoices. If the funds get low, the attorney may ask the client to advance additional funds. The attorney must refund any funds remaining after a matter. Finally, a flat fee (discussed above) is sometimes called a special retainer, in that it’s paid in advance to cover all of the attorney’s work on a matter. The South Carolina legislature recently clarified that an attorney can charge this type of fee, but that it must be refundable if the client terminates the attorney.
- Costs: Expenses tied directly to a client matter (i.e., expenses other than the attorney’s general overhead for rent, electricity, etc.), which are separate and apart from the lawyer’s fee for legal services in that matter. In the written fee agreement between the lawyer and client, the lawyer will spell out the costs not included in the fee, and how to pay those costs, and (when applicable) reimbursed. Payment of costs can vary widely—clients may agree to pay them, lawyers may agree to pay them, or they may split in a pre-agreed fashion. Typical costs in a litigation matter, for example, include:
- Postage and overnight mail services
- Photocopying and preparation of exhibits
- Fees for legal research services
- Court filing fees
- Fees for service of process
- Payments to court reporters for court transcripts
- Travel-related expenses
- Expert witness fees
- Billable (or billing) hours: Time spent by the attorney on work directly related to a matter, which the lawyer charges or claims a right to a fee. Attorneys must generally track and report to clients their billable hours for any matter, even one in which the attorney and client have agreed to a contingent fee or flat fee. Attorneys generally report the time they spend in increments of an hour (such as quarters or tenths of an hour), and round the time they spend up or down to the nearest increment. For example, an attorney who bills by tenths of an hour may bill a 10-minute phone call as 0.2 hours, and a 32-minute meeting as 0.5 hours.
Can I Negotiate My Attorney Fees?
Yes. You can always negotiate the fee arrangement with the attorney before the representation begins—that is, before you sign a fee agreement with the attorney.
An attorney may also be willing to negotiate fees later, if circumstances in the case or your life change, but you should never merely assume that’s the case. A fee agreement is a contract that lawyers rely on in running their businesses, and so long as it reflects reasonable compensation for an attorney’s legal services, it is binding and enforceable.
Of course, no one—least of all attorneys—wants to get into a dispute over fees, which is why it is important, in choosing a lawyer, to consider how transparent and straightforward the attorney is about what the legal services you need will cost.
Do not be shy about discussing fees and payments with an attorney. It’s far better to be up-front about your needs and financial capabilities than to leave your priorities unsaid and subject to misinterpretation.
Types of Cases Lawyers Handle
Obviously, in addition to finding a lawyer who fits the bill cost-wise, you also want your lawyer to have the qualifications and experience necessary to handle your case. Not all lawyers are alike—in fact, lawyers can focus their practices on a wide variety of matters. Here are some of the common areas of practice and what they mean.
Personal injury lawyers represent clients who have suffered injuries for which they want to seek compensation from insurance companies and at-fault parties. Common personal injury matters include car accidents, slip and fall cases, workplace accidents, medical malpractice, nursing home abuse, and wrongful death. Personal injury lawyers also commonly handle workers’ compensation claims.
In a nutshell, if you got hurt because of someone else’s wrongdoing, then you probably need a personal injury lawyer.
Criminal defense attorneys represent individuals who are charged with felonies, misdemeanors, and other offenses. Common criminal matters include charges involving narcotics, assaults, DUIs, and sex offenses.
If you have been or think you might be charged with a crime, then you need a criminal defense lawyer.
Family law involves legal matters that have to do with all sorts of family relationships, including divorces, child custody, and child support. These matters can involve high emotions and may last a while. Accordingly, choose an attorney with whom you feel comfortable having candid conversations about personal matters.
If you expect a significant change, positive or otherwise, in your family situation, then you need a family lawyer.
The categories above represent just three of what are, quite literally, hundreds of legal practice areas. Even if the situation you confront does not fall within one of those categories, consulting with a trusted and respected law firm is often the smartest first step in finding the representation you need. Lawyers who cannot help will almost always give recommendations for lawyers who can.
How to Find the Right Attorney for You
Start any search for an attorney by focusing on those who practice in the area of law relevant to your situation (or ask any attorney to point you in that direction). It can help to work with an attorney who serves the community where you live, so begin your search locally and widen the net until you have three or four firms in mind. Then, make appointments for initial consultations, which should always be free of charge.
Every lawyer and law firm has its own personality. Use the initial consultation as your opportunity to get a feel for the person and team you might work with.
It can also help to bring with you any important documentation relevant to your legal situation, and prepare to answer the basic questions about it that you can expect an attorney to ask, like:
- What type of legal/life situation brings you in today?
- When did the situation arise?
- Who are the individuals, businesses, or others who are involved in the situation?
- What do you hope to accomplish?
Prepare to ask the attorney some questions, too. After all, a consultation is a job interview of sorts, and your goal is to find the attorney who fits your needs in terms of cost, experience, know-how, and personality.
You might ask, for example:
- Is this the kind of case you regularly handle?
- Will you personally work on my case? If not, who is my point of contact?
- How much do you charge and what is your fee structure?
- Do I need to pay any fees upfront?
- What do you think of my case?
- What information could I give you that might change your opinion of my case?
- How long do you think it will take for the case to get resolved?
Don’t Gamble With Your Future
In any legal situation, your future is not something you want to leave up to chance. The decisions you make now can have lasting effects on your well-being and livelihood. A lawyer is an investment in your life, your security, and your peace of mind. Be strong in the decisions you make and have confidence you know what’s best for you. If you need help or have questions about your legal case, contact an experienced South Carolina attorney.