How Much Lawyers Cost: Everything you need to know.
The cost of your lawyer will be based on the reason why you need a lawyer (type of law practiced), the level of experience your lawyer has, your geographic location, and more. There are lawyers who cost as much as $1,000 per hour, but the average cost for most people who need legal representation for regular cases will be $200–$400 per hour. Rates can vary dramatically.
This pricing guide covers:
Cost Factors: Private practice or law firm?
The more prestigious the law firm is where your lawyer practices, the higher the cost will be, no matter how it is billed. This price is a combination of the age, size, reputation (for winning), geographic location, and caliber/wealth of the firm’s clients.
Going with the cheapest lawyer possible is never an advisable path to pursue. It’s like shopping around for the cheapest heart surgeon.
Depending on the consequences, should a case not go in your favor, getting a lawyer with a more expensive hourly rate could end up costing you less because the lawyer’s experience might bring a quicker resolution than a lawyer with a less-expensive hourly rate because of his or her level of experience and the firm’s years in practice.
Typical Fee Structures
In most civil cases, an attorney will be paid under one (or a combination) of the following fee arrangements:
Sometimes, when a lawyer thinks it’s likely you’ll get a significant payout in the case because it looks like it will go in your favor, the lawyer may choose to defer payment until the case has been settled.
In this situation, the fee will be a percentage of that settlement amount, and it is not uncommon to see that structure in real estate or probate cases. In the case of a will for a deceased relative, the law firm can make draws on the estate at different stages.
Fixed or flat fee
Lawyers will generally charge a flat fee for representing your legal interest in a simpler legal case—like the creation of an uncomplicated LLC or a simple estate plan—because matters are well defined and the case is relatively straightforward. This fixed or flat fee could be anything from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Other examples of cases that would fall into this category include simple bankruptcy cases, wills, divorce cases that are uncontested, or trademark filings. But if the scenario has the potential for any form of litigation, then it is unlikely that it will be given a fixed fee arrangement.
In most situations, a flat fee will not include the court filing fees, so check the documented details that call out exactly what is covered and what is not covered, so you can avoid any unexpected costs.
Of all the different fee structures, the one most commonly used by lawyers is hourly fees, because it is often next to impossible to determine exactly what level of effort will be required to either defend or prosecute the case.
Each time the lawyer works on your case—whether it is a phone call or e-mail, drafting written communications which need to be mailed to the other parties, or time spent attending meetings with you—the hours will be recorded and documented so you are aware of exactly where the expenses were incurred.
Generally, the lawyer will let you know before you retain counsel what increments or portions of an hour are used for billing so there won’t be any misunderstandings when you get a bill for services. Some of the more expensive lawyers will charge for an hour for doing a five-minute call while others charge in fifteen-minute increments.
With bigger cases and larger payouts, lawyers have an option to work on the basis of what is referred to as a contingent fee. Under this structure, the lawyer is only paid in the eventuality of a particular outcome from the case, such as either your case concluding in your favor or a settlement being agreed in your favor.
The most common case types where lawyers work on this basis include lawsuits where you are seeking a financial reward such as a class action case, medical malpractice case, or a personal injury claim.
For example, Downtown LA Law Group in Beverly Hills, CA, is a personal injury firm with a "no recovery, no fee" policy. You do not pay anything until the case is resolved. They say, “We have $40,000,000.00 in recoveries.”
The success fee is a combination of elements from a contingent fee structure and an hourly fee structure, resulting in a lower hourly fee with an agreed payout amount or percentage in the event that the case concludes with a result that is in line with your desired outcome for the case.
This is a Latin phrase that means “for the common good,” and lawyers can choose to do the work for no fee at all.
Most lawyers set aside a portion of time each year to do pro bono cases, and for those in need of pro bono representation, organizations like legal aid societies or assistance groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), will generally have a list of lawyers that you can contact.
Experience level of your lawyer
The cost of your lawyer will rise with his or her years of experience. Depending on the seriousness of the case and the degree to which you are invested—either financially or emotionally—in the outcome of the case, you may choose to not select the junior members of the team but instead opt for one of the more senior members at the firm to get a positive result.
At some law firms, you could be paying $200 an hour for a junior associate and $800 an hour for a senior associate or partner. While that sounds like a lot more, the more senior member could get results faster, or develop a no-lose strategy that could elude the competence of the junior associate.
Given that a standard work week is 40 hours, a brand-new partner in a law firm (usually after about ten years working at the firm) will typically have at least between 24,000 to 25,000 hours of experience under the belt versus roughly 4,800 hours for a lawyer finishing up a second year as an associate. That amount of experience (of a partner) could alter the outcome of your case for the better.
What type of lawyer do I need?
There are many areas of specialty in law, which allows you to select a lawyer who knows as much as possible about your particular type of case and how to either defend you or fight for you best in front of a judge and jury.
You won’t want a divorce lawyer representing you in international business matters. Likewise, the hourly rate for a lawyer to represent you in a straightforward individual bankruptcy case would not be the same rate if he or she was representing your company because of a copyright infringement dispute.
The different types of lawyers include, but are not limited to, the following:
Admiralty (Maritime) LawAdmiralty law wraps controls and measures around property disputes or financial matters involving navigation, marine trade, sailors, or a particular land-based activity which is maritime in essence. It is not the practice of, or execution of, the Law of the Sea, because that falls under international public law; and it covers situations regarding the rights to minerals, navigation, or coastal waters jurisdiction.
Bankruptcy LawBankruptcy law in the United States applies to the insolvency matters of both commercial entities and those of individuals. While individual state laws are an important element in bankruptcy procedure, bankruptcy law falls within the domain of federal law. Lawyers who practice bankruptcy law are highly skilled and experienced in the US Bankruptcy Code subset of the United States Code.
Business (Corporate) LawWhile you can go to most generalists for the formation of an LLC or a corporation with a simple structure, you’ll need a corporate lawyer for the more serious legal aspects around the administration of corporations to best protect the interests of those involved. This includes the creation or dissolution of intricate corporate structures. This need becomes more evident in larger corporations—they often have teams of in-house lawyers to handle matters like mergers and acquisitions, internal reorganization, or legal conflicts between corporations and individuals covering issues like patents, liability, and state, federal, and international regulatory compliance issues. Lawyers who are employees of their corporate client are normally referred to as in-house counsel.
Civil Rights LawWith the evolution of society, the field of civil rights law works toward a balance on the issues between government entities and individual people or groups of individuals. This field covers cases that fall under the umbrella of discrimination and practices that unfairly infringe individuals’ liberties and rights in areas like education, employment, housing, or other entitlements.
Criminal LawAs defined by the law, actions or behaviors that are illegal or criminal are addressed by criminal law. District attorneys and prosecutors sanction legal actions, and criminal defense lawyers represent their clients who have been accused of criminal activity. The issues central to prosecution lawyers and defense lawyers are basic rights, individual liberty, and responsibilities.
Entertainment LawIntellectual property law revolves around the legal rights to inventions and creative works. The central components of entertainment law are related to the royalties and rights issues around media in the arts, music, athletics, television, stage, and cinema. In the athletics arena, sports lawyers take care of regulatory compliance issues and are involved in the legal aspects of drafting contracts and representing athletes in such matters.
Environmental LawState, federal, and even international law addresses a vast range of treaties, statutes, conventions, and regulations based in environmental law. In this field, lawyers are either bringing cases against or representing advocacy groups, individuals, government entities, or individuals. Within the scope of cases that environmental lawyers are involved with, most are focused on issues over land and littoral use, pollution, and natural resource management, and cases are typically tied to public health issues.
Family LawThis area deals with legal issues between people who fall within the definition of family. Generally, compared to corporate law, etc., the law firms tend to be a good deal smaller, and in their practice their typical cases include marriages, domestic partnerships, civil unions, divorce, adoption, child welfare, child abuse, and legitimacy.
Health LawCovering the scope of any and all legislation, or regulations affecting healthcare, lawyers are involved in representing the interests of insurance companies, clinics, individual health practitioners, or patients. The drafting, roll out, and enforcement of healthcare policies is done by federally employed lawyers, and another set of lawyers will provide in-house counsel for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, as well as educational institutions.
Immigration LawWith the law being a critical component at each stage of the immigration process, lawyers in this field will work to represent people in the process of seeking naturalization, as well as refugees and asylum seekers.
Intellectual Property LawAs intellectual property relates to protecting the creations, the trademarks, and the creators and their rights, the scope has grown to include pockets lawyers may specialize in, including industry, the arts, and science. Within the work involved for copyright lawyers, the legal components of visual identity, contracts, slogans, or brand names is taken care of; and with the evolution of visual, audio, artistic, and entertainment mediums, the laws that govern and protect such assets are in a state of evolution, as the law needs to protect both the transmission and reproduction of digital assets.
International LawThis field will encompass the prosecution and protection of both commercial or business interests, and issues between nations. Issues that fall within this arena include trade agreement violations and taxation disputes, and are governed by regulations that have been established to create a framework of acceptable boundaries around which both sides generally operate in healthy relations.
Labor (Employment) LawWhen issues like negative forms of conduct, harassment, wages or incentive compensation disputes, or any form of discrimination including age, race, gender, etc.; both the employee, and the employer will retain the services of a lawyer who specializes in labor law to bring the issue to a conclusion.
Military LawSince 1951 in the US, the uniform code of military justice has been the basis for military law. Within the armed forces, these codes and procedures govern matters of a legal nature, and usually lawyers who represent in this field are serving members of the military in the Judge Advocate General's Corps.
Personal Injury LawSituations that include workplace injury, accidental collisions, medical malpractice, wrongful death, or product liability, which result in affecting individuals psychologically or physically as the result of unintentional or intentional wrongdoing, constitute areas that qualify both sides to seek out legal experts in personal injury law.
Real Estate LawLegal issues related to construction, land disputes, ownership, landlords, tenants, on both the residential and commercial side will be addressed by lawyers who deal in real estate law, and they will draft and review contracts and work with government offices, including planning and zoning departments.
Tax LawDue to party changes of government at the national level, there are often revisions and additions that occur which affect tax law in both domestic and international transactions. This continually adds to the complex nature of an ever-evolving legal taxation structure that requires more continuous education than most other areas of law.
There could be additional expenses in a number of areas including:
- Expert witness fees - $275 per hour for non-medical experts and $350 per hour for medical experts
- Investigator hourly fees - average cost is around $50 per hour
- Paralegal hourly fees - average $40 to $100 per hour
- Travel expenses - varied
- Photocopying fees - $0.10 to $0.25 per page
- Court fees (including: service fee, non-expert witness fee, mediation fee, and appeal fee) - varied
- Criminal fees might include costs for time spent in jail, criminal records checks, etc. - varied
When it comes time to pay your lawyer for services rendered, you can pay with:
- Bills – For charges per hour, it is normal for you to receive a bill at the end of the month which will generally carry 30–60-day payment terms. Before you engage with a lawyer, clarify the level of detail you want on your monthly bill so everything will be in order, with the right level of detail, from the very first bill you get. The common practice for lawyers is to use software to track their time, so it’s a straightforward admin task to transfer that information to their billing software.
- Retainers - When working with a lawyer under a retainer fee structure, a lump sum will be transferred to the lawyer, and as work begins, portions will be taken from the retainer. Then each month you will get a bill detailing how much money was charged out of the retainer. If your retainer is getting close to being depleted and it is clear it will all be gone before the trial is over, then you will have to “top up” again in order to continue or, once the case is over, if there are still funds left in the retainer, you will be sent whatever money is left over.
- Payment plans - Some lawyers will agree to work out a payment plan which will give you the option of paying on a biweekly or monthly basis. This typically occurs in the case of a flat fee structure of many hundreds or thousands of dollars.
According to Amazelaw, the most common areas of law practiced in the United States are :
- Commercial litigation
- Real estate law
- Personal injury law
- Labor and employment law
- Family law
- Bankruptcy law
- Immigration law
- Insurance law
Other options to garner resolution
Another option to avoid the need for retaining legal counsel and dragging the dispute through the courts, with all the potentially negative ramifications that would bring with it, many people look first to see if it is possible to settle the differences and come to an agreement through the services of a mediation facilitator.
Very often people find themselves in a situation where mediation will not work, or not bring about a resolution that is satisfactory for either or both sides. At that point, it is time to lawyer up.
How to select a lawyer
- Establish what kind of lawyer you need.
- Reach out to the bar association in your area for a shortlist of recommended lawyers.
- Compare the reviews of the recommended lawyers to see who will make it onto your final list.
- Where applicable, ask for referrals from family and friends or business colleagues.
- Finalize your list of 3 to 5 lawyers.
- Check the website for each lawyer.
- Make an appointment to see each lawyer to discuss your case.
- Put together a list of questions for the meeting.
- Bring any relevant documentation to your appointment.
- Meet with lawyers.
- Select the lawyer you feel most comfortable with and who fits your budget.
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