A lawyer works for you. Therefore, since you are the boss, feel comfortable when discussing fees with a lawyer. There are several various types of fees that a lawyer can charge, depending on the type of case.
The kind of fee I charge is called a “contingent” fee. I only get paid a fee in injury and disability cases if we win. Contingent fees — typically one-third of the settlement or judgment — opens the door to the court house for those who would be unable to pay thousands up front for any attorney. In workers comp, they are capped at 20%. In social security disability cases, they are capped at 25% up to $6,000 maximum. In some cases, contingent fees are prohibited, such as in divorce cases.
Because most lawyers do “bread and butter” type letters, advise clients, read leases, and defend legal claims, hourly rates are the most common type of fee. Hourly rates will vary depending on a lawyer's experience, the type of case and location. Wall Street lawyers doing multi-million dollar mergers are going to be hugely expensive compared to a country lawyer handing a DUI in Tipton County.
The other issue with hourly rates is what you get charged for. Even phone calls to and from the lawyer are billed. This has surprised many people. Fees also are charged when the lawyer is driving to court, appearing, and returning to the office. This is called “portal to portal” and is not unusual, but is often unexpected. Since I focus on injury, death and disability cases, I hear from folks outraged about how their lawyer, “charges me just to talk to him.” Retainer fees are advanced payment based on an hourly rate. Clients put money into a trust or escrow account, and the lawyer deducts fees as services are completed. It may be a refundable or a non-refundable retainer, and the client should understand which it is on the front end.
Flat fees are usually charged when the services being provided are more predictable. It is important to ask the lawyer exactly what services and expenses are and are not covered in a flat fee. Some do simple divorces, DUI or other type cases for a flat fee. No matter which type of fee agreed upon between you and your lawyer, the agreement should be in writing.
In addition to a lawyer's fees, you might be expected to pay certain expenses. These should be discussed before hiring a lawyer, and the lawyer should be willing to provide explanations of these charges.
The expenses I routinely charge are medical records fees, filing fees, court reporters bills and expert witness charges. Lawyers can also charge for photocopying, long distance telephone, faxing, courier, postage, overnight delivery, travel and transportation.
The other day, someone called who hired a law firm off television. They were seeking a new attorney and in doing so explained that the attorney recommended a settlement that gave the attorney about three times the client’s share. It is important to know your lawyer’s philosophy early on, as that would never happen at my firm.