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Whether you're in the midst of a divorce, buying a new property or filing for bankruptcy, there are many times when hiring a lawyer can be a smart move. But even when you're not paying a huge bill for a full trial, legal costs can quickly skyrocket. To find an attorney who's effective and affordable, seek recommendations from trusted sources, ask thoughtful questions and compare fees.
How Much Does an Attorney Cost?
Hiring an attorney doesn't always mean taking your case to trial. From reviewing legal documents to offering advice, there are many reasons you may want a lawyer's help. Common situations that might call for an attorney include:
- Family law issues, such as divorce, legal separation, adoption, child custody or spousal support
- Criminal charges, such as drug possession or driving under the influence
- Estate planning tasks, such as creating a last will and testament, living will, trust or durable financial and medical power of attorney
- Personal injury claims, such as medical malpractice, slipping and falling at a business or being hit by a car
- Business transactions, contracts or disputes
- Real estate transactions such as buying a home or investment property
- Landlord/tenant disputes or evictions
- Immigration issues
- Intellectual property matters such as patenting an invention
- Employment law issues like wrongful termination or workplace discrimination
- Bankruptcy or foreclosure
How Do Attorneys Charge?
When looking for affordable representation, it's important to understand the different ways attorneys may charge.
- Hourly: Many attorneys bill by the hour, with rates averaging from $100 to $500 per hour or more, depending on expertise, location and other factors. Hourly rates are typically billed in six-minute increments (one-tenth of an hour).
- Flat fee: Attorneys often charge flat fees for standard tasks such as getting a power of attorney or filing for an uncontested divorce. A typical flat fee for drawing up estate planning documents ranges from $1,000 to $2,000, according to Lawyers.com.
- Retainer: A retainer is a fee paid upfront and held in a trust account. The lawyer draws from it to pay for services as needed. When the retainer runs out, you'll either make another retainer payment or start paying an hourly rate. Retainers can vary based on the type and complexity of the case, and you can expect to have to pay $500 or more for a retainer.
- Contingency: For cases involving any type of financial compensation—for example, winning a lawsuit—an attorney may charge a contingency fee, or a percentage of any money they win for you. Contingency fees average about 33% of any compensation. You usually won't be charged upfront for any legal work done on contingency.
Some attorneys use a combination of fee structures. For example, an attorney might take your case on a contingency basis, but also ask for a small retainer.
How to Find Affordable Legal Representation
To find good legal representation that won't cost you an arm and a leg, follow these steps:
1. Ask for Recommendations
Begin by gathering recommendations for attorneys from friends, coworkers or neighbors. You can also contact your state or county bar association. Many self-help legal websites, such as LegalZoom, Nolo and RocketLawyer, can match you with lawyers in your area. Some employers, labor unions or credit unions offer employees or members a prepaid legal service plan as a benefit.
2. Shop Around
Once you've got a list of potential attorneys, start comparison shopping. Most attorneys offer free consultations where you can discuss your needs and ask questions to decide if the attorney is the right fit for you. (More on what to ask during your consultation below.)
3. Do as Much as You Can Yourself
The more work you can do yourself, the less the attorney can bill you for. Get the most from meetings and phone calls with your lawyer by preparing ahead of time and having the right information and documents at hand. Use legal websites to download and complete legal documents for your lawyer to review, or visit LawHelp Interactive for free help finding and filling out legal forms.
4. Investigate Free or Low-Cost Legal Help
Can't find a lawyer in your price range? Depending on your income and legal problem, you may be eligible for free or reduced-rate legal assistance or free legal advice. Law schools sometimes offer pro bono (free) services too.
5. Check Your Insurance Policy
Are you facing a legal issue that might be covered by your insurance? If your policy includes liability coverage (think homeowners insurance or auto insurance), you may be entitled to an attorney to help defend you—provided by the insurer. Review your policy details to find out.
Questions to Ask an Attorney
During your initial consultation with a potential attorney, get an idea of costs by asking these questions.
What Is Your Fee Arrangement?
Find out what the attorney's fee structure is and when you'll be billed. For hourly fees, ask if different activities are billed at different rates. For instance, is there a lower hourly rate for conducting research and a higher rate for appearing in court? Will you pay less for work done by paralegals or legal assistants than by veteran attorneys? Get an estimate of how long the case may take, but know that an estimate is no guarantee.
For contingency fees, know what percentage of your award the attorney will take. Finally, ask how expenses for things like court fees, messenger services, photocopying or process servers are handled and ways to reduce them. Get fee details in writing to avoid misunderstandings. Even if your state doesn't require written agreements, they're a good idea.
Do You Offer Payment Plans or Sliding Scale Fees?
Due to ethical and accounting issues unique to legal practices, some attorneys don't take credit cards. And those who do may charge processing fees that can add hundreds—or thousands—to your bill. If you don't have the cash to pay an attorney's fee in full, a payment plan can make your bill manageable. Attorneys may also be willing to adjust their fees using a sliding scale based on your income or financial situation.
Can I DIY?
A good attorney should be willing to explain where you can and can't take a do-it-yourself approach. For example, can you use a legal website to create documents and have the attorney review them, instead of having the attorney create them from scratch? This may not get you completely through your legal issue, but it could reduce the amount you have to pay an attorney.
Are There Alternatives to Litigation?
In cases like divorce, personal injury or business disputes, mediation or arbitration can cost less than going to court. Both mediation and arbitration use third-party neutral facilitators to help you and the other party resolve your disputes out of court. Some nonprofits, courts, law schools and bar associations even offer free or low-cost mediation services.
The Bottom Line
Finding the right attorney can seem daunting, but with a little research, you'll find the perfect combination of affordability and expertise. When it's time to pay for legal services, a credit card with an introductory 0% annual percentage rate, a personal loan or a home equity line of credit could provide the funds you need.
Check your credit report and credit score before applying for credit to get an idea of how lenders will see you. In general, higher credit scores translate into better loan terms and lower interest rates, so making an effort to improve your credit score could pay off. Having solid payment options in your back pocket lets you focus on resolving your legal issues—without breaking the bank.