How Much Does a Lawyer Cost: Everything You Need to Know
The cost of a lawyer can vary depending on fee schedules, flat-rate vs. hourly, retainer vs. contingency, and an estimate of the total cost based on the case.8 min read
Updated June 23, 2020:
How Much Does a Lawyer Cost?
When clients ask, "how much does a lawyer cost," the answer can vary from $50 to $1000 or more per hour. But if you're facing a legal issue, working with a lawyer is very helpful and can affect the outcome of the case. Before hiring a lawyer, you should talk to him or her about fee schedules, flat-rate vs. hourly billing, retainer vs. contingency fees, and a ballpark estimate of the total cost based on the case.
The reality is that lawyers' services are not cheap, no matter what type of legal case you are facing. Even simple cases can cost several thousand dollars, and fees for more complex cases can quickly rival the price of a small luxury car. As you consider how much a lawyer will cost, think about how much you have to spend and what the outcome is worth to you.
For example, if you're thinking about taking legal action against a local business that did not repair your refrigerator properly, do you have enough money available to hire a lawyer, present evidence, and get the court to rule in your favor? Even if you do have enough money, is the overall cost of replacing the refrigerator or having someone else repair it worth the trade-off?
If you decide to move forward with legal action, or you need assistance with a legal matter, ask all potential lawyers that you meet with about their billing practices and fees. If the lawyer is not willing to discuss the costs with you, it's a sign of poor client service.
Most lawyers bill under one (or several) of the following arrangements:
- Hourly rate: this is the most common way for a lawyer to bill. This process requires careful documentation of all time spent working on documents, reviewing case files, presenting information in court, and any other tasks related to the client's case. The client and lawyer will agree on the hourly rate before getting started with the case.
- A lawyer's hourly rate varies drastically based on experience, location, operating expenses, and even education.
- Attorneys practicing in rural areas or small towns might charge $100-$200 per hour.
- A lawyer in a big city could charge $200-$400 per hour.
- Specialized lawyers with a lot of expertise in a specific area of law, such as patent or intellectual property law, could charge $500-$1,000 per hour.
- Larger and more prestigious law firms often have higher rates as well.
- Retainer fee: many lawyers require a retainer fee up front, which is something like a down payment on the case. As the lawyer works on your case, he or she will deduct the costs from the amount you paid and send you periodic invoices showing the deductions.
- If you drop a case for which you have already paid a retainer fee, it is most likely non-refundable.
- Flat fee: a lawyer may offer a flat fee for a specific, simple, and well-defined legal case. Examples of cases eligible for flat fee billing include uncontested divorces, bankruptcy filings, immigration, trademarks, patents, and wills.
- Before agreeing to a flat fee, make sure you understand what is covered in the agreement. It may not include filing fees or other fees associated with the legal process, so you'll need to plan accordingly.
- Contingency fee: a lawyer may offer this type of billing in a debt collection case, an automobile accident, a medical malpractice, or another type of personal injury case. With a contingency fee, the client doesn't pay until the case is resolved. Upon resolution, the contingency fee is a percentage of the settlement or money awarded on behalf of the attorney's client.
- Courts may limit contingency fee percentages. The average ranges from 25 to 40 percent. Contingency fees may be negotiable.
- Referral fees: if a lawyer doesn't have a lot of experience with cases like yours, he or she may refer to you another lawyer who does. In this case, the referring lawyer may receive a portion of the total fee. You have the right to know if a referral fee will be included in your total cost.
Criminal cases typically fall under the flat fee or hourly billing structure. Because a criminal case is often more intricate, pricing with contingency fees doesn't really make sense. Serious criminal cases often require multiple legal proceedings, such as the preliminary hearing, jury selection, trial, writs and appeals, and sentencing, so the process can take months. Many criminal lawyers who charge by the hour will require a retainer fee.
In addition to the hourly fees or flat-rate fee charged by a lawyer in a criminal case, the client often has to pay additional expenses, such as:
- Expert witness fees
- Investigator hourly fees
- Paralegal hourly fees
- Travel expenses
- Photocopying fees
- Court and criminal fees (if found guilty)
- Criminal fees might include costs for time spent in jail, criminal records checks, etc.
A criminal lawyer's hourly rate will depend on multiple factors, which may include:
- The reputation of the lawyer and/or firm
- The complexity of your criminal charges
- The lawyer's level of experience
- The location (hourly rates are typically higher in large cities)
- The location is also impacted by overhead costs to operate a firm in that state/city
The total cost of a lawyer depends on several factors, the most important of which is the billing method. If you are found not guilty, or acquitted, of a charge, you may still require additional legal services to have the arrest and/or charges removed from your record.
Most criminal lawyers charge similar fees to stay competitive, but certain cases are more complex and urgent, so you'll need to make a decision right away. Once you hire a lawyer, it will be much more difficult to adjust the billing method or fees.
Before you choose a lawyer who charges by the hour, make sure to ask if he or she divides the hour into 15-minute or 6-minute increments. It becomes important when you make phone calls or get brief updates, since a five-minute phone call could cost $50 when charged by a $200/hour lawyer who breaks the time into 15-minute increments. A lawyer who charges the same hourly rate but offers 6-minute increments would charge $20 (1/10 of the hourly rate of $200) for that same call.
Why is the Cost of a Lawyer Important?
Understanding the cost of a lawyer before you enter into an agreement can help prevent unpleasant surprises or costs that you cannot afford. Some people might start working with an attorney, only to find that the fees are mounting dramatically. You don't want to put undue financial strain on yourself or your family, nor do you want to have to file bankruptcy or take other legal measures to get out of debt.
Expenses and court costs add up quickly, so talk to any potential lawyer in detail about expected fees and costs. Get a written estimate and make sure it includes things like delivery charges, court costs, time spent on the case by paralegals and/or legal secretaries, and filing fees. If these aren't included on the written estimate, make sure to ask. You might end up with a separate bill, unless your attorney absorbs the extra fees into the total bill.
It's also important to make sure that the cost of the lawyer is worth the overall cost of the case and what you could recoup. For example, if you're trying to file bankruptcy for a debt of $15,000, you probably don't want to hire a lawyer whose estimate comes in at $10,000.
Reasons to Consider Not Using a Lawyer Based on Cost
Many people don't have enough money to hire a lawyer for legal help. The United States of America offers rights to its citizens, called Miranda Rights or the Miranda Warning. Under the Miranda Warning, a citizen has the right to an attorney. If he or she cannot afford one, an attorney will be provided. So, if you find that you aren't able to pay for the legal fees associated with your criminal case, you may qualify for this resource.
Low-income clients may also qualify for free legal help in certain types of cases, including divorce and landlord-tenant disputes. Attorneys and law firms might dedicate a certain percentage of their time to pro bono (or free) work for clients who need help. Search online for lawyers in your area who might offer these services, or contact the state bar association.
Other resources include:
- Union-provided legal representation
- Support from civil rights or advocacy groups (such as those that help victims of crimes)
- Insurance-provided legal representation
If you don't feel comfortable with a specific attorney, don't hire him or her just because the price seems right.
Reasons to Consider Using a Lawyer Based on Cost
The cost of the lawyer will certainly factor into your decision, but remember that cheaper does not equal better. A lawyer who charges more per hour may have more experience with cases similar to yours. Attorneys who are just starting their practices might charge less, but a lower fee often comes with less experience. But you should also avoid going into serious debt by hiring a lawyer you can't afford.
What Could Happen When You Use a Lawyer?
When you use a lawyer in any type of legal proceeding, you now have someone on your side who understands the complex legal system. Even something that seems simple, like filing for custody or going through a divorce, can quickly become complicated and overwhelming. Courts in different states require different documentation and forms to be filed, and most people just don't have a firm understanding of these requirements.
When you work with an experienced attorney, he or she will understand what is necessary and how to handle all requirements properly and on time. Your lawyer can also help break down complicated legal forms, terms, and discussions for you. In a 1999 study conducted by the Insurance Research Council, data showed that those who obtained legal representation received 3.5 times more settlement money in personal injury cases than those who did not.
What Could Happen When You Don't Use a Lawyer?
Without legal representation, you could miss a due date for forms or documents, causing delays in your case or even a ruling that is not in your favor. The most common problem that comes up among those who don't hire lawyers is complete confusion as to what they need to do to close out the case. You could end up in limbo, not sure what to do next or where to go for help.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How much will a lawyer cost for a divorce?
Some lawyers offer flat-rate pricing for simple, uncontested divorce proceedings. But when a divorce involves custody of minors, a lot of property to split, or other aspects that make it more complicated, the price may go up.
- What is the average hourly rate for a lawyer?
The average hourly rate for a lawyer is between $250 and $520.
- How can I find out the total estimated cost for a lawyer's services?
Before hiring a lawyer, request a written estimate for the total cost. But remember that even a written estimate is just a guess, and the fees can change depending on the outcome and duration of your case. One thing that should not change is the hourly rate. Some lawyers also accept payments toward the total cost.
- How can I pay for legal fees?
Most lawyers accept standard methods of payment, such as credit cards, debit cards, checks, and cash. Your lawyer might allow you to set up a payment plan toward the total cost. Before you sign an agreement with a lawyer, find out how often he or she requires payment. Some require it monthly, while others require weekly payments toward a bill.
If payment to your attorney includes part of a settlement, make sure you understand how that will be paid after the case is closed.
Steps to File
The first step in finding out how much a lawyer will cost is scheduling consultations. Some offer free consultations, while others will charge a small fee for the initial meeting. During this consultation, you should present all information relating to your case and ask for more information about billing and estimated total costs.
If you need help with how much a lawyer costs, you can post your job on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.