Lawyers are expensive, and no one can predict the legal fees in a divorce, but prospective clients must understand fees and billing practices to make an informed decision about hiring a lawyer. The client should always understand how he or she is going to be charged.
Here are routines an attorney might use to charge for his or her services:
- Hourly rate: The client pays the attorney a set amount for every hour he or she works. Hourly rates are the most common arrangement. Under this routine, the attorney gets paid an agreed-upon hourly rate for the hours worked on a client’s case or matter until it’s resolved. The rate depends on each attorney’s experience, operating expenses, and the location of his or her practice. Cheaper isn’t necessarily better. A more expensive lawyer with a lot of experience may be able to handle a complex problem more quickly. An experienced attorney may give a better estimate how many hours a particular matter will take to resolve.
- Flat fee: The client pays the lawyer a single fee for his or her services. Where a legal matter is simple and well defined, lawyers sometimes charge a flat fee. Wills, uncontested divorces and simple bankruptcy filings may be situations that can be covered in a flat fee arrangement. The client must understand exactly what that fee includes. The flat fee might not include expenses such as filing fees.
- Retainer: In this regime, the client pays the attorney a certain amount for legal services in advance. This retainer arrangement frequently works in conjunction with an hourly rate. A retainer fee is typically, but not always, an advance payment on the hourly rate for a specific case. The lawyer puts the retainer in a special trust account and deducts from that account the cost of services as they accrue. During the course of legal representation, clients should review periodic billing statements reflecting amounts deducted from the retainer. Most retainers are non-refundable unless labeled “unreasonable” by a court. Dropping the case before completion may mean forfeiture of the retainer.
Rates may vary anywhere from $50 an hour to a $1,000 an hour or more, and may vary based on location, experience of the lawyer, and the nature of the matter. In rural areas and small towns, lawyers tend to charge less, and fees may land in the range of $100 to $200 an hour for an experienced attorney. In major metropolitan areas, the norm is probably closer to $200 to $400 an hour. Lawyers with expertise in specialized areas may charge much more. The hourly rate for paralegals and other support staff may be $50 to a $100 an hour or perhaps more, and a legal secretary’s time on things like document production may be perhaps $25 to $50 an hour.
Costs add up. The lawyer should explain miscellaneous costs such as court costs, filing fees, secretarial time, and delivery charges.
The lawyer should offer a written employment contract that spells out the terms and conditions of his or her employment, including fees and costs. If an attorney is unwilling to put a fee agreement in writing, the prospective client should look elsewhere. Some states require written fee agreements for most cases. The attorney should include in the fee agreement a provision for periodic, itemized billing. The itemized bill should list and describe all charges so that the client can review them.