How much should my lawyer charge me?

Hiring a lawyer is typically something people do when they are facing complex legal issues where a great deal is at stake. An attorney can provide sound advice and guidance based on California or federal laws, and can also represent your case in court or during settlement negotiations. Many attorneys have years of education and significant experience, so their counsel does not come cheap.

However, your attorney should be straightforward with you about his or her fees and payment expectations from the very beginning. In most cases, you will receive a monthly bill as your case progresses, but what happens when that bill is not what you expected or agreed upon?

Do these fees add up?

Like many professionals, attorneys generally offer multiple services, and your case may involve many facets of preparation and execution. On the other hand, some attorneys will weigh other factors, such as how complicated your case is and how time-consuming it may be. Generally, an attorney may charge you in any of the following ways:

  • Asking for a retainer fee, which some consider like a down payment and which officially hires the attorney as your counsel
  • Using a fixed fee, which is usually for common practices, such as preparing a will, or for those clients who may have difficulty paying
  • Abiding by statutory fees, which are set by law for such legal matters as probate and workers’ compensation
  • Agreeing to a contingency fee, which means the attorney receives a percentage of any money the court awards but may still charge you certain fees
  • Charging by the hour, for which your attorney may give you an estimate, but you may also owe more if your case proves to be more complex
  • Adding administrative fees that can add up quickly

If your attorney expects your case to reach a fee of $1,000 or more, he or she must prepare a written statement outlining the details of those costs. The agreement, which you will sign, should describe the billing process, whether any assistants, investigators or paid witnesses will work on your case, any additional expenses and an estimate of the total you will owe. You have the right to ask for an explanation of anything you don’t understand or to ask for better terms if you disagree.

However, even your attorney’s response may not adequately explain a bill that is higher than your agreement or that seems to include charges you did not incur. If this is your situation, you may benefit from seeking the opinion of a professional malpractice attorney.