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10 questions related to legal fees every new client should ask before hiring a lawyer

In order to minimize financial surprises and reduce the cost of your legal bill, consider asking these 10 questions when speaking to a lawyer for the first time.

If you’re facing challenges in your life and you need legal help, chances are you’ve considered hiring a lawyer to help you resolve your legal issues.

Unfortunately, lawyers aren’t cheap. Many of them charge $250/hr - $750/hr to handle a legal case, and would likely cost thousands of dollars in total, no matter how small the issue seems to be.

So in order to minimize financial surprises and reduce the cost of hiring a lawyer, where possible, here are 10 questions you should ask when speaking to a lawyer for the first time:

How much would it cost to hire a lawyer to help with my legal case?

In order to take on a legal case, lawyers would need to agree with a client regarding the compensation for their services, as well as the retainer fee required to start the process. The retainer fee is simply a pre-payment meant to secure a lawyer-client relationship.

Asking a lawyer to provide a cost estimate, the retainer fee required, as well as any other non-lawyer fees expected to be incurred may go a long way in anticipating all the costs and determining if it’s worth pursuing the legal action.

What would be the hourly rate of the lawyer working on my case?

Lawyers charge by the hour, and it’s not uncommon for lawyers to charge high hourly rates. Fees that lawyers bill depend on their experience, which city they operate in, as well as the area of their specialization. 

For example, a junior lawyer may charge $250/hr to review certain documents, while a corporate litigation lawyer that practices in the large metropolitan area may bill at the rate of $1000/hr or more. 

Make sure to inquire about the lawyer’s hourly rate, before formalizing the relationship.  

How does the lawyer justify such a high hourly rate?

Many lawyers would claim to be more experienced than their peers, when it comes to certain types of legal cases. For example, an attorney that spent the last 10 years protecting the legal rights of those being laid off may charge a higher fee to review an employment contract, than a general corporate lawyer with 3 years of experience.

Lawyers may justify their fee, based on the number of years of experience, a geographic area where they operate, the area of the law they specialize in, their track record, standing in the legal community, and professional relationships they might be able to leverage.

Make sure to research the average lawyer hourly rate in your area, and ask a lawyer you consider hiring, why their legal fee is higher than that. You may also choose to verify their claims. As the legal community in each city is quite small, other lawyers might be able to confirm or deny any claims that other lawyers make about themselves.

Can a lawyer provide a fixed-fee estimate, instead of billing me hourly?

In some cases, clients may be able to negotiate with the lawyer a fixed fee it would take to resolve a legal case. Many lawyers now offer this option for services that are standard and predictable. In that case, lawyers agree to deliver their service at the fixed price - regardless of how long it would take them to do so.

For example, reviewing commercial contracts, submitting an immigration application, drafting a power of attorney, or filing for an uncontested divorce may all be available at the fixed predefined fee, provided that the outcome is predictable.

Therefore, consider asking if your legal matter may be resolved at the fixed fee, before hiring a lawyer.  

Are there any other alternative fee structures that may be considered?

In addition to hourly rates and fixed fee arrangements, lawyers may agree to provide services and get compensated, based on the outcome of the case. This is called a “contingency fee agreement”. 

Alternative fee arrangements may be available when a client takes another party to court, and may be able to win a settlement. Examples include personal injury cases, corporate litigation, and sometimes even domestic issues reviewed in the Small Claims Court.

It may also be possible to handle certain parts of the legal case under a fixed-fee arrangement, in combination with an hourly fee to cover other, more unpredictable parts of the case.

Always ask a lawyer if an alternative fee agreement may be arranged, to eliminate the uncertainty of hourly fees. 

How will my fee be calculated?

Understanding how legal fees are calculated goes hand-in-hand with knowing the approach a lawyer will take to bill for legal services rendered. 

For example, if your lawyer insists on the hourly fee of $500/hr, and it takes them 3 hours to draft a Will, the overall cost of service will be $1,500. If a lawyer agrees to complete that same service for a $1,000 fixed fee, you would only have to pay that amount, regardless of whether it takes a lawyer an hour or 5 hours to draft a Will document. 

Always ask a lawyer to provide an explanation of how fees will be determined, as well as an example calculation, before making a decision to proceed. 

Can this fee be reduced by having a paralegal or a law clerk working on some parts of my case?

While lawyers are responsible for handling your case, they frequently delegate some of their work to their associates. In that case, it may be possible to reduce the legal services fee, by asking a lawyer to delegate some of the administrative, drafting, or review work to a law clerk or a paralegal. 

Ask a lawyer if they intend to involve their co-workers' assistance, and if it would be possible to bill for that work at the law clerk or a paralegal hourly rate, which is usually significantly lower. 

Can a lawyer provide frequent progress updates alongside the breakdown of the associated costs? 

One of the mistakes that clients of legal services make is delegating the entire legal case to the lawyer, without asking for a status update, until the legal issue is resolved. 

It may provide peace of mind at first, however, it may create a lot of questions around the work that the lawyer is doing, and the corresponding legal fees incurred throughout the process. It’s not uncommon for a client to be shocked by the legal bill presented to them at the end, or by how long it takes a lawyer to complete an assignment. 

In order to minimize any surprises, consider asking your lawyer to provide frequent updates and costs incurred alongside the project, rather than once at the very end. 

It may also help to verify the rate your lawyer used to bill for each task, especially when law clerks or paralegals are involved.

What are other non-lawyer fees I should be aware of when pursuing my legal case?

Lawyer fees are not the only costs that a consumer of legal services should budget for.

When pursuing legal action, it’s not uncommon for a client to have to cover other fees, such as court fees, application fees, money transfer fees, mailing fees, document printing fees, among many others.

Be sure to ask a lawyer to describe all the fees that may be expected, in order to avoid any overages or unexpected line items included in the invoice.

Can a lawyer let me know ahead of time if we exceed the expected budget?

One of the issues with being charged by the hour, is that it’s not always clear how much costs have been accrued at any point during the legal process. Clients may feel like the work progresses within a budget - only to find out the legal bill far exceeds the original expectations.

For that reason, it’s always recommended for a client to insist that a lawyer notifies a client before an agreed-upon budget has been reached. 

In complex legal situations, unexpected events a lawyer’s involvement occurs quite frequently. Make sure to discuss with a lawyer an approximate budget required to complete the work, and ask them to notify you of any unexpected expenses that may need to be incurred outside of the agreed-upon scope.

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