Most people will require a lawyer at some point in their life, whether it’s for serious legal trouble or simply reviewing and signing a contract. Regardless of why you need a lawyer, the cost structures and legal fees can be confusing.
According to a survey of Law Firm Economics by the National Law Journal and ALM Legal Intelligence, the hourly rate for attorney in the United States is upward of $391.
What goes into the cost of a lawyer?
While $391 an hour is a good benchmark to plan for, the cost of a lawyer varies greatly. Pricing takes into account why you need a lawyer, the amount of work required, and the lawyer’s experience level.
Field of law
Depending on what type of legal help you need, the cost of hiring a lawyer will differ. For instance, a criminal defense attorney will likely cost more than an estate planning lawyer. Similarly, a patent attorney will typically cost more than a real estate one.
Like many jobs, a more experienced lawyer is going to cost more than one fresh out of law school. Likewise, lawyers with a proven track record are more commonly sought out than those with a shorter or negative work history.
Amount of work
The complexity of a case and the amount of work required from your lawyer will play a major factor in how much you’ll be charged. Cases that require more research, time, and effort will cost more.
Types of lawyer fees
Each of the factors listed above impacts the total cost of hiring an attorney. Lawyers and law firms also have common fee structures that are used interchangeably, depending on the nature of the case. Your lawyer will likely choose the option that works best for them based on what your case entails.
Hourly rate and flat fees
Lawyers typically charge an hourly rate for their services that can be charged in 6-minute intervals (by the 10th of the hour). Some firms may also charge a paralegal fee for backend work that helps your case run smoothly.
Similar to the hourly rate, flat fees pay for your lawyer’s time and energy with a predetermined, up-front cost, rather than by the hour.
These fees are usually not used together. Instead, lawyers determine which of the two is the most prudent on a case-by-case basis. Typically, consultation fees are also charged by hourly rates.
Average hourly rates by state
The average hourly rate for attorneys varies dramatically from state to state. Statista research showed that West Virginia had the lowest average hourly rate in 2021, coming in at $163. Conversely, Washington D.C. had the highest hourly rate at $411.
Lawyer retainer fees
Retainer fees are most commonly used in tandem with hourly or flat fees. They are a kind of repository for the money you’ll spend on your case.
For example, a divorce lawyer may require an up-front retainer fee of $5,000. This money goes into a trust account from which your lawyer can deduct their hourly rates and other associated costs. Once these funds go below a certain threshold, your lawyer may require you to replenish your retainer in order to continue working together.
Lawyer contingency fees
Contingency fees are only used in civil law. Personal injury lawyers, medical malpractice lawyers, and other non-criminal lawyers sometimes utilize a contingency fee structure for payment. With a contingency fee system, you won’t be responsible for paying for any of your lawyer’s services up-front.
The biggest difference between civil and criminal law is the type of punishment. For criminal cases, the sentence is often jail time, while civil cases typically award monetary settlements. This is where a lawyer can cash in.
If a settlement is issued, lawyers operating on a contingency structure will take a predetermined percentage of the payout, usually around 33-40%. If your lawyer doesn’t win your case, you won’t be required to pay them. However, you might still be on the hook for any applicable court and paralegal fees.
How to find a qualified lawyer
It’s no secret that hiring a lawyer can be expensive, but there are options to help lower those costs. You can check out local and national legal aid services, as they can provide free or low-cost legal help.
You can also look into whether you have access to legal insurance as a voluntary benefit through your employer. Legal plans provide you with a network of attorneys for a monthly rate. Legal plans cost around $200 per year, less than the typical rate for just one hour with a lawyer.