How Much Do Attorneys Charge?
One of the largest areas of mystery in the legal profession is the question of the cost of an attorney. The average person likely has no idea about how much attorneys cost unless and until they actually need one. This uncertainty can often lead to people trying to handle legal issues on their own because they are worried it would cost too much to hire an attorney or because they don’t want to have an uncomfortable discussion.
This blog will attempt to remove some of the secrecy from the process, so you can go into a consultation with an attorney with realistic expectations. The following information is by no means intended to suggest that these are the “rules” for attorneys – every attorney is entitled to make up his or her own fee structure. This is only intended to let you know common practices in and around Las Vegas.
The first place to start would be the initial consultation. If you have a litigation matter (i.e., a case where you may have to file a lawsuit to recover money damages), the initial consultation should usually be free. Most litigation attorneys in Las Vegas, including our firm, will offer a free consultation that usually lasts up to one hour. The purpose of this consultation is to evaluate your case and determine whether the attorney can help you, so most attorneys just accept that the initial consultation should be free until both sides decide they want to work with each other moving forward.
In non-litigation matters, such as estate planning, family law, or corporate law, many attorneys in those areas will charge for an initial consultation. Why? Well, because you’re going to ask questions and they’re going to give answers and those answers are based on the attorneys’ law school education and experience. Unlike in litigation, you may be able to get everything you need from the attorney in that initial one hour consultation, so it makes sense to charge for that because you may never need to come back and give that attorney any further business.
Civil, Criminal, or Family Law?
The next consideration you’ll need to evaluate is what area of law you are involved in. The way you get charged depends greatly on what kind of law you’re talking about. Below is a description of the three primary types of law:
Civil law is basically all types of law that involve only money or property rights. You are suing to recover money, defending yourself from someone suing you for money, or you’re drafting contracts to protect your money, essentially. Inside of civil law you have litigation (like personal injury lawsuits), transactional (drafting contracts for businesses or individuals), and estate planning (wills and trusts). Estate planning is often considered its own separate field because it is so specialized, but since it deals only with money and property rights, I am keeping it inside the civil category for purposes of this blog.
Everyone probably knows what criminal law is, but just in case: criminal law involves anything where the government is seeking to enforce a law against you. DUIs, assault charges, embezzlement – all of that falls into criminal law.
Family law includes divorce, pre-nuptial agreements, child custody, and anything else that involves familial relationships.
Contingent Fee, Hourly Fee, or Flat Fee?
Now that we’re discussed the three areas of law, let’s talk about the three different types of fees commonly used.
This is the type of fee you see advertised everywhere on billboards when they say “No Fee Unless You Win.” Heck, we have this statement on our own website. A contingent fee is almost exclusively used in litigation It doesn’t make sense to have a contingent fee structure in the other fields of law. A contingent fee means that you and your lawyer are in it together, essentially. If you win, your lawyer wins. If you lose, your lawyer loses. Contingent fees usually get paid at the end of a case out of your share of the settlement or verdict. You don’t pay anything out of your pocket, usually, and the lawyer advances all of the costs to litigate your case. In exchange, the lawyer will take a cut off the top of any money you recover in addition to getting repaid all of the expenses he or she advanced for your case.
Hourly fees are just what they sound like – the lawyer tells you that his or her rate is $XXX per hour and every time the lawyer works on your case in some way, he or she enters that time into a program (usually) in 6 minute increments and you get a bill at the end of the month telling you how much you owe. Hourly work is very commonly used in transactional civil work and civil litigation defense work. If you agree to an hourly fee, the lawyer may also ask you to deposit an initial retainer amount to ensure that he or she is going to get paid for the work he or she does.
Flat fees are the least common method of charging for legal work. They are most popular in criminal cases and estate planning, because those types of law include routine processes. If something is routine, the attorney can usually estimate the amount of work it will take and offer you a flat fee to do it. Flat fees are nice for clients because you know exactly what it will cost you to accomplish your goal. They are risky for attorneys in other fields, though, because a case could end up blowing up into a much larger case down the road and you’re stuck essentially doing legal work for free. It also can cause ethical problems if you need to withdraw from representing a party after they paid you the flat fee.
So How Much Should I Expect to Pay a Lawyer?
Now that I’ve discussed the types of law and the types of work, let’s talk dollars and cents. This discussion is based on experience practicing in Las Vegas, reviewing fee agreements in a litigation context, discussing fees with corporations and insurance companies, motion practice regarding recovery of attorney fees, and conversations with other lawyers in Las Vegas. It is by no means the final word on fees.
Contingent Fee Ranges.
As a starting point, you should know that the general assumption is that a contingent fee will be 1/3 (or 33.33%) of the gross recovery. In other words, I think it’s fair to say that most lawyers start out with that assumption and adjust up or down depending on the circumstances. So you start there and then determine whether a case warrants a step up, a step down, or perhaps a combination of steps up and down based on the phase of the case.
Factors that can adjust your case down below the standard 1/3 would be if your case may be able to settle without the need to go to formal litigation. In that case, many firms will offer a reduced fee percentage if they can settle your case without having to file a lawsuit because that requires less work for the attorney. You may find someone willing to take your case for 25% contingency if they can settle before filing a Complaint. Some lawyers around town advertise 20-22% contingent fees in that circumstance, although they have a lot of fine print on the limitations of that, which almost exclude filing a Complaint on your behalf.
Factors that can adjust your case up would be complexity, difficulty, and trial, typically. Many contingent fee agreements have escalators in them for certain case events. If your case goes to trial, for instance, it is not unusual for a lawyer to increase his or her contingent fee to 40% or more, because of the immense time and expense involved in taking a case to trial. A lawyer won’t be able to work on other cases if yours is in trial, so he or she needs to account for that.
Additionally, a case that has very challenging facts or a case that involves a very complex field of law may suggest a higher contingent fee percentages. Why? Well, if your facts are “challenging,” it means your case is a higher risk for the firm to take. When risk is higher, reward needs to be higher. Similarly, if your case involves a complex field of law, that means that there could be a substantial additional amount of work involved in litigating the case.
Other things that can affect the contingent fee is the size of the law firm. Smaller firms sometimes charge a higher fee because they will be giving your case more attention and staffing your case with an actual attorney as your primary contact instead of a “case manager” or paralegal. Larger firms can afford to charge lower contingent fees because your case is one of 1,000 cases they have and they have a 3-1 paralegal-to-attorney ratio to handle their files.
Finally, remember that the contingent fee percentage is only half the story. You also will need to pay back the expenses incurred in prosecuting your case. Some plaintiff law firms will charge you for everything they do – long distance phone calls, postage, faxes, copies, even scanning your documents. They use this as a hidden profit mechanism to take more off the top of your big win, so make sure to check with the law firm what they charge for. If they charge for this stuff, you have every right to ask them to remove those charges before you sign the retainer agreement. Here at Power Play Legal we do not charge for any overhead expenses like that. We only charge for costs that we actually pay to a third party vendor for the specific benefit of your case – like filing fees, expert fees, or process servers.
The range of hourly fees in Las Vegas is extremely broad. Hourly work is most common in the civil context, as discussed above. The lowest hourly rate I have ever personally charged was $135.00/hr back in 2006 for a very large insurance company that gave my old firm 80% of its work. The highest I’ve ever charged is $600.00 on a shareholder lawsuit against a board of directors in 2017. The highest rate I’ve ever encountered in my practice is $1,400.00/hr for a local super-lawyer who only handles massive liability lawsuits.
I know this isn’t helpful for you, so let me give you a better idea of what to expect. Insurance companies hire lawyers and get the best rates. Why? Because they plan to be the CostCo of legal work – they send you a dozen cases and they promise to keep sending you cases in exchange for your promise to charge a low rate and keep litigation costs effective for the insurer. Insurance defense lawyers in Las Vegas charge anywhere from $150.00 – $275.00/hr for partners (the senior lawyers in a firm), but don’t expect to get those rates if you aren’t promising the law firm a lot of future work.
In terms of walking into a lawyer’s office with your own lawsuit or legal matter, I think it’s reasonable to expect the lawyer to tell you anywhere from $200.00 – $350.00 per hour for general civil, with the majority of work coming in at the $250.00 – $300.00 per hour range in my experience. If you have a case in a very specialized area of law it may be higher.
Yes, lawyers are expensive. But not having a lawyer is often more expensive.
Criminal law, family law, and estate planning utilizes flat fees most commonly. These vary greatly by law firm, and I have substantially less experience dealing with these types of flat fees. I’ve seen criminal lawyers charge $1,500.00 – $2,500.00 flat fee for a misdemeanor plea deal, $2,500.00 – $5,000.00 for the early stages of a first DUI defense, and $10,000.00 through the preliminary hearing for felonies. Generally the flat fees I’ve encountered have had a structured system; $X if we can get a plea deal done early on, and an additional $X if we need to go further.
For estate planning, you will usually see very simple wills at anywhere from $500.00 to $1,000.00, but these are usually for a very cookie-cutter will that is made for people with few assets and no complications. It basically includes a short consultation and the lawyer filling in a form for you and having you sign. If you want a trust established or you have a more complicated estate plan, the fees will go up substantially. I would suggest that given the expectation of having a lifelong relationship with your estate planning attorney, it would be wise to place more emphasis on how well you get along with the attorney and less on how cheaply you can get it done.