There are many reasons why you may find it necessary to retain an attorney. It could be in relation to a non-contentious legal matter, such as buying real estate or drafting contracts, or it could be for a litigious matter where you either plan to file a lawsuit or you are the person being sued.

But let's face it: for most people, the decision whether to retain an attorney or not has a financial component to it too. Attorney fees can vary wildly depending on various factors, including the type of case and its complexity. Attorney fees can also depend on the location and size of the law firm and the experience level of the attorney representing you. Large law firms in prime retail locations are known for charging far higher fees than those situated in less populated areas. In smaller law firms, the fees are likely to be more affordable even if your attorney has extensive experience in your legal matter. In fact, it is not unusual to find attorney fees varying between $50 and $1,000 per hour throughout the United States.

So, what will a lawyer charge you? Here are the factors that determine what legal help will cost.

How Will I Be Charged?

It is important that your lawyer offers you some options when it comes to fees, and provides you with an estimate of costs. The American Bar Association (ABA) provides model rules of professional conduct for lawyers with regard to fees in order to encourage reasonable behavior. The law firm’s billing structure will usually be based on hourly rates, contingency fees or flat fees:

Hourly Rates
Hourly rates are the most common legal fee arrangement. An hourly rate is the amount that a lawyer charges you per hour for work undertaken on your behalf. You may be billed more than one rate depending on the qualification and level of experience of the person working on your case. Paralegals and support staff charge at much lower rates than seasoned attorneys. Your attorney should have a good idea of how long your case will take and which staff members are likely to be involved in it. The agreed rates should be put in writing and should not change throughout your case; however, an estimate is just an educated guess. The number of hours could end up being significantly higher as a result of unexpected costs; for example, time spent interviewing previously unheard-of witnesses.

Contingency Fee Structures
In a contingency fee arrangement, your attorney will represent you and be paid only if you win your case. You will then have to pay your attorney a predetermined percentage of your monetary award. This can be particularly galling for a client if the case settles earlier than expected, with limited input on the lawyer’s part. Certain cases cannot be billed on a contingency basis, such as bankruptcy, divorce and criminal defense. Cases that usually attract a contingency fee arrangement are those involving personal injuries or malpractice, which are likely to attract substantial settlements or judgments.

Flat Fee Arrangements
With a flat fee arrangement, you pay a flat fee for all services rendered. This is likely to be a more cost-effective arrangement than an hourly fee. Your attorney will assess the likely cost of your case and notify you up front of the fee that you will be required to pay for completion of your case. Flat fees are usually agreed when the legal matter is relatively simple to address, such as drafting a standard contract.

How Can I Reduce Legal Fees?

Depending on the nature of your legal matter, the applicable charges can be much wider than just the preparation and research time of the legal staff involved. Legal costs may be incurred by phone calls, conferences, interviews with potential witnesses and instructing investigators, as well as court appearances. There are many ways to minimize your legal fees. Options include:

  • Selecting an attorney who is a recognized expert in the specific area of law in which you need assistance. An attorney who does not have the required experience will spend considerable time researching the area and you will be obliged to pay for this further education. The ABA provides a useful guide to legal services, which is a good starting point when seeking an attorney in your state.
  • Contacting some attorneys in your area. Compare hourly rates, flat fees and contingency fees, and request estimates for the legal work you need.
  • Negotiating with the attorney for a reduction of the proposed fee. Lawyers who are trying to establish their offices tend to be more flexible, particularly where they believe you may bring them more business, or your case may attract the media. If your lawyer is acting on a contingency basis and there is a high probability of achieving a substantial award, your attorney may be more willing to accept a reduced contingency fee.
  • Planning your agenda prior to any conversation or meeting that you have with your attorney. If you have agreed to hourly rates, you will need to keep the conversation focused so that the meeting is shorter and less expensive. Clarify any gray areas before you put down the phone or leave the attorney’s office. You will be charged every time you send an email, as your lawyer will have to read it, discuss it with other staff and then reply to it.
  • Cooperation with your attorney is crucial and you need to provide whatever information is required for your case when it is requested. This will allow you to avoid incurring costs for chaser calls and follow-up letters or emails.
  • Doing things yourself whenever possible. For example, you can obtain records, complete standard form documents or make photocopies for the attorney. This type of collaborative working pattern between client and attorney is sometimes referred to as "unbundling" and can be a good way to reduce the expensive time that your attorney or paralegals spend on your legal matter.

What if I'm Unhappy with My Legal Bill?

If your attorney appears to have added unreasonable or excessive charges to your bill, you should contact the attorney and/or other partners at the law firm and request a review. If this fails to achieve the desired reduction, you could contact your local Bar Association and ask to be referred to the Legal Ethics Committee or Attorney Disciplinary Board that oversees attorney ethics and complaints in your area.