Good communication, including talking about fees, is the basis of a good lawyer-client relationship. Understanding how much a lawyer will charge you and when and how you have to pay is very important. Before you hire a lawyer, you should:
- Ask about the lawyer’s legal fees and payment terms at your first meeting with a lawyer, and
- Ask for a written fee agreement before you choose a lawyer.Remember: It’s always OK to ask about fees and invoices at any point in your case. If you have questions or think something may be incorrect, talk to your lawyer about it right away.
Common Payment Arrangements
There are several kinds of legal fee arrangements. You and your lawyer may agree to one, or you may combine features of different payment arrangements. The most common arrangements are:
This is also called a “flat” fee. It means you and your lawyer agree to a certain fee for the legal work s/he will do for you. Before agreeing to a fixed fee, make sure you know exactly what is and is not included. Also ask if there are any other charges that you have to pay, such as out-of-pocket expenses. In Alabama fixed fee arrangements are refundable. That means if you end your relationship with the lawyer before all the legal work is complete, your lawyer must give you a refund for the services you did not receive. However, the lawyer is entitled to be paid for the part of the work he completed.
Many lawyers charge by the hour. How much each lawyer charges for an hour can vary. Ask the lawyer to estimate how much time your case will take. But remember: if unexpected things happen, your case may take more time than the lawyer estimated. Also keep in mind that the time spent for every phone call, meeting, e-mail or text with your lawyer adds to your bill. See Tips to Lower Your Legal Fees below.
This is the fee arrangement used in most accident, personal injury, and debt collection cases. You would agree to pay your lawyer a certain percentage of the money you get if you win your case or settle it out of court. If you lose, the lawyer does not get paid.
With a contingency fee, your lawyer may pay your court costs and case expenses in advance. If you win, you would repay your lawyer for those costs.
Your lawyer must give you a written agreement saying:
- What percentage of the money won goes to the lawyer, and
- If this percentage is calculated before or after costs and expenses have been subtracted. (Expenses for contingency cases can be high, especially if your lawyer hires doctors or other expert witnesses. Before the lawyer starts to work on your case, you should agree on how expenses will be handled.)
Some contingency fee agreements say the percentage of money for the lawyer goes up if the case is not settled and goes to trial, or if there is an appeal after a trial. If your lawyer does it this way, that information must also be in your agreement.
Limited scope representation
In Alabama you are allowed to hire a lawyer to handle just some parts of your case, but not others. This can save you money, as you only pay the lawyer for the things you cannot or do not want to do. For example, you may want your lawyer to speak for you in court, but you feel comfortable about doing the paperwork – or the other way around.
You and your lawyer must put your agreement in writing, so you will each know which parts of the case the lawyer will handle, and which parts are up to you.
This arrangement is most often used in family law cases. It can also be used for other civil (not criminal) matters. Click here to learn more about limited scope representation. Frequently Asked Questions by Potential Clients.
Free or discounted consultation
Many lawyers will meet with you once for free or at a reduced rate. This is a good way for them to know more about your case and for you to see if you want to hire that lawyer.
All of the lawyers in the Alabama State Bar Lawyer Referral Program will meet with you for 30 minutes for a fee of no more than $50. To contact a lawyer in this program:
- Call the Lawyer Referral Program: (800) 392-5660, or
- Visit the Lawyer Referral Program.
Its purpose is to assist members of the public who can afford to pay a lawyer but do not have one in finding an attorney who handles their type of matter. It is the only lawyer referral service operated by the Alabama State Bar. Check out the ASB Lawyer Referral Service Now
For some legal work, such as Social Security or workman’s compensation claims, lawyers’ fees are set by law or regulation. For these kinds of cases, a court or government agency decides or approves the fee you will pay. In some cases, such as civil rights and consumer protection, if you win your case, the judge may say the other side has to pay for your reasonable legal fees.
When you pay depends on the kind of legal service you need and your fee agreement.
Your lawyer may require:
- A retainer, which is a payment before agreeing to start the work,
- Full payment as soon as the legal services are complete,
- Monthly bills, or
- The fees be taken out of any money the lawyer wins for you.
Talk to your lawyer about ways to handle payment of fees and expenses for your case.
Tips to Lower Your Legal Fees
- Give your lawyer a paper or electronic file with the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone involved in your case. Also include a written summary of the main facts of your case.
- Take a copy of all papers related to your case to the first interview.
- When your lawyer interviews you, be as brief as you can. Let your lawyer guide you to the information that is most important.
- Do not exaggerate or change the facts of your case. Be as accurate as you can.
- Be honest with your lawyer about all the facts, good or bad, embarrassing or not. It’s very important to tell your lawyer the whole truth. Your lawyer will keep all your information private.
- Avoid unnecessary phone calls, e-mails or texts to your lawyer.
- Do not sign any documents or take legal action without talking to your lawyer first. Then follow your lawyer’s advice.
- Ask your lawyer about the financial impact of possible outcomes and strategies for your case. For example, would the court costs and legal fees be more than the amount you are likely to recover?