The Costs and Fees Associated with Hiring an Attorney

Understanding lawyer fee agreements

By Trevor Kupfer | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 9, 2023

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One of the main concerns people have when they’re looking to hire a lawyer for the first time is: “How much do they cost?”

Attorney fees and fee arrangements range depending on the type of case, the area of law, the law firm, the amount of time it will require, and other deciding factors. But here are some common fee structures you may need to know about if you reach out for legal representation for your legal issue.

Flat Fee or Fixed Fee

A single, lump-sum payment is common in areas of law where the legal work is often straightforward and unlikely to run into complications—wills, estate planning, patents or trademarks, and certain tax filings.

If the legal services you need are more complex, an attorney may suggest an hourly structure.

Hourly Rate

Paying by the hour is common in civil cases where no party is physically injured—such as family law and real estate.

Many attorneys on an hourly fee model require an initial payment to secure their services. This is referred to as a retainer agreement.

It is worth asking an hourly attorney about their minimum billing segment, so you can know if something like a five-minute call would cost you a full hour.


Many injury-based areas of law, such as personal injury, medical malpractice, insurance, and workers’ compensation, operate on a contingency fee basis.

In contingency fee arrangements, the attorney is not paid unless they win (or settle) your case. They would then take a percentage of your award or settlement.

What that ratio is should be covered early on, but it’s often about one-third. Sometimes contingency fees operate on a scale, in which they take a lower percentage for a low award.

Additional Costs

These refer to expenses related to a case, such as:

  • Filing fees and court costs
  • Travel and mileage
  • Deposition and photocopying fees
  • Fees for expert witnesses, investigators, or consultants

You should ask your attorney what additional costs may be incurred upfront. For example, does the lawyer provide a free consultation? Extra fees don’t usually apply to contingency cases.

Questions for an Attorney

When you first meet with an attorney for legal help, they may ask you to sign paperwork related to a fee arrangement. You should read it carefully and ask any questions that arise. 

  • When and how often do I pay?
  • What about additional costs?
  • Does this meeting cost anything?

To find an experienced attorney for legal advice, search the Super Lawyers directory, using the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

For more information on this area of law, see our general litigation overview.

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