The type of fee arrangement that you make with your family law lawyer will have a significant impact on how much you will pay for his or her services. Legal fees depend on several factors, including the amount of time spent on your case; the lawyer's ability, experience, and reputation; the complexity of the case; the results obtained; and the costs involved. Other factors such as the lawyer's overhead expenses (rent, utilities, office equipment, computers, etc.) may affect the fee charged. Also, keep in mind that certain legal costs, such as evidence analysis and research, can add up.
There are several common types of fee arrangements used by lawyers:
Consultation Fee: The lawyer may charge a fixed or hourly fee for your first meeting in which you both determine whether the lawyer can assist you. Be sure to check whether you will be charged for this initial meeting.
Contingency Fees: Contingency fee agreements are typically not available for family law matters, but they are used in some rare cases. A lawyer's contingency fee is based on a percentage of the amount awarded or the financial outcome of the case. Contingency fee percentages vary, but a one-third fee is common. Some lawyers offer a sliding scale based on how far along the case has progressed before it is settled. Courts may set a limit on the amount of a contingency fee a lawyer can receive. Lawyers may be prohibited from making contingency fee arrangements in certain kinds of cases, such as child custody matters.
Flat Fees: A lawyer charges a specific, comprehensive fee. A flat fee is usually offered only if your family law case is relatively simple or routine, such as an uncontested divorce.
Hourly Rate: The lawyer will charge you for each hour (or portion of an hour) that the lawyer works on your case. Thus, for example, if the lawyer's fee is $100 per hour and the lawyer works 5 hours, the fee will be $500. This is the most typical fee arrangement. Some lawyers charge different fees for different types of work (legal research versus a court appearance). In addition, lawyers working in large firms typically have different fee scales with more senior members charging higher fees than young associates or paralegals.
Referral Fee: A lawyer who refers you to another lawyer may ask for a portion of the total fee you pay for the case. Referral fees may be prohibited under applicable state codes of professional responsibility, unless certain criteria are met. Just like other fees, the total fee must be reasonable and you must agree to the arrangement. Your state or local bar association may have additional information about the appropriateness of a referral fee.
Retainer Fees: The lawyer is paid a set fee, perhaps based on the lawyer's hourly rate. You can think of a retainer as a "down payment" against which future costs are billed. The retainer is usually placed in a special account and the cost of services is deducted from that account as they accrue. Many retainer fees are non-refundable unless such a fee is deemed unreasonable by a court. Since this type of fee arrangement can mean several different things, be sure to have the lawyer explain the retainer fee arrangement in detail.
With all types of fee arrangements, you should ask what costs and other expenses are covered in the fee. Does the fee include the lawyer's overhead and costs or are those charged separately? How will the costs for staff and support be charged -- such as secretaries, paralegals, messengers, and process servers. In contingency fee arrangements, make sure to find out whether the lawyer calculates the fee before or after expenses.
Get a Free Initial Review of Your Family Law Case
When it comes to hiring an attorney, the type of fee arrangement you set up is important and can shape the way your attorney manages your case. You always have the right to talk about different fee arrangements before retaining an attorney's services, legal assistance which can make all the difference in your case. The good news is that before you pay out any legal fees, you can arrange a free initial case review with an experienced family law attorney in your area.