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Legal Representation


Attorneys' fees vary by attorney and by case. An attorney may charge a client in several different ways. The most common forms of billing include flat fees, hourly rates, contingent fees, and retainers.


The first task in hiring an attorney is to find one who can manage the particular legal problem at issue. All attorneys are not equally skilled in every area of the law. Like many other professionals, attorneys tend to specialize in certain areas of practice such as contracts, PATENTS, family matters, taxes, personal injuries, criminal matters, and business matters. A person facing criminal charges, for example, will want to contact an attorney who specializes in criminal defense work, not a patent attorney.

Some attorneys are known for their skill in certain types of cases within a specialty. For example, a criminal defense attorney may be competent to handle any criminal case, but may be especially proficient in drunk driving cases or HOMICIDE cases. Attorneys who specialize in certain types of cases often have developed a network of helpful contacts and have a great deal of experience with the kinds of issues involved in these cases.

Some attorneys are general practitioners, proficient in a broad range of legal topics. These attorneys are generally less expensive than specialists. However, if a general practitioner is not competent in a particular area, she may need to put more time and effort into the case than would a specialist, and the client will have to pay for this extra work.

Many businesses specialize in making attorney referrals at no charge to the consumer. They offer lists of attorneys categorized by area of expertise or type of client. For example, some referral services list attorneys who specialize in representing persons of color, women, or gay men and lesbians.

After obtaining a list of qualified attorneys, the consumer should have an initial consultation with several attorneys if possible. Some attorneys offer such a consultation at no cost, whereas others may charge a nominal fee. In either case the initial consultation does not obligate the consumer to hire that attorney or firm.

At the initial consultation, the potential client should provide the attorney with as much information as possible about the case. Relevant information may include pictures, witness statements, and other documents. This information helps the attorney make an informed judgment about the case.

The attorney generally does not give legal advice at the initial consultation. Instead, the attorney will ask questions to determine whether he is able to represent the consumer. The attorney will not begin to work on the case until a fee arrangement has been reached with the consumer.

In deciding whether to retain a particular attorney, the consumer should look at a number of issues. If money is a consideration, the consumer should weigh the attorney's fee against the importance of the case. For example, the consumer may be willing to spend more money on an attorney if facing criminal charges than if involved in a minor civil matter.

If the consumer and the attorney will need to meet frequently during the representation, the consumer should consider the location of the attorney's office and required travel time.

Another consideration is personal chemistry. Attorneys and clients do not have to be friends, but they should have some rapport so that they can work together. If the consumer does not feel comfortable with an attorney, she should find another attorney.

If time is a consideration, the consumer should ask how long the attorney expects the case to last. Some attorneys work more quickly than others.

A consumer should also consider the reputation of the attorney. Attorneys usually are willing to provide a list of previous clients as references. All states have a PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY board that oversees the conduct of attorneys in the state. These boards may be able to give consumers information regarding ethical violations by attorneys. The consumer also may want to ask if an attorney has MALPRACTICE insurance, which compensates clients who are victims of incompetent legal work.

A flat fee is a dollar amount agreed to by the attorney and the client before the attorney begins work on the case. The flat fee is favored by many attorneys because it is a simple transaction and because the attorney is paid at the beginning of the representation. The attorney identifies the amount of work that the case will require and calculates a reasonable fee based on the time and effort involved. If the attorney spends less time on the matter than anticipated, the attorney may keep the excess payment, unless the attorney and client agree otherwise. Conversely, the attorney who charges a flat fee may not later demand more money if the case requires more time and effort than originally anticipated.

An hourly rate is a predetermined amount charged for each hour of the attorney's work. The attorney and client may agree that hourly fees are to be paid periodically, or in one lump sum at the end of the case. The time that an attorney charges for legal work is called billable time, or billable hours. Hourly rates vary according to the attorney's expertise and experience. Some critics have argued that hourly rates discourage quick work and expedited resolutions. Before agreeing to an hourly rate, prospective clients should ask for a written estimate of the number of billable hours that the attorney anticipates will be necessary to complete the matter.

A CONTINGENT FEE is a percentage of the amount recovered by the client. A contingent fee is not paid by the client until the client wins money damages from a defendant. Attorneys offer such a fee if the client stands a good chance of winning a sizable cash settlement or judgment. Contingent fees cannot be used in DIVORCE cases, CHILD CUSTODY cases, and criminal cases.

Contingent fees are a gamble for the attorney. If the client does not win the case or wins less money than anticipated, the attorney may work for no or little pay. Common contingent fees range from 20 to 40 percent of the client's recovery. For personal injury and MEDICAL MALPRACTICE cases, laws in all states limit the percentage that an attorney may receive from a client's recovery. For other cases the percentage is negotiable between the client and attorney.

A client may retain an attorney for a specific period of time rather than for a specific project. In return for regular payment, the attorney agrees to be on call to handle the day-to-day legal affairs of the client. Most individuals do not have enough legal matters to keep an attorney on retainer.

The term retainer also refers to an initial fee paid by the client. Retainers often are used by attorneys who charge an hourly rate, and some attorneys add an initial retainer to a contingent fee.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Labor Department - Employment And Training Administration to Legislative PowerLegal Representation - Advertising, Duties And Obligations, Fees, Hiring An Attorney, Pro Bono Services, Public Legal Services - Self-Representation