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The Costs and Fees Associated with Hiring an Attorney

How much, and what does that mean?

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?” While exceptions always exist, the following is a general overview of the most common ways attorneys charge for legal services.

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 your needs 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. 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 contingency. In this arrangement, 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, travel and mileage, expert witnesses, investigators, consultants, depositions, and photocopying. You should ask your attorney what additional costs may be incurred. Extra fees don’t usually apply to contingency cases.


When you first meet with an attorney, 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 additonal costs?
  • Does this meeting cost anything?

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

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