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Making the Argument

The Hard Truth: Attorney Fees - What You Need to Know

By Michelle Fulton
December 3, 2004

The information in this column is not intended as legal advice but to provide a general understanding of the law. Any readers with legal problems, including those whose questions are addressed here, should consult attorneys for advice on their particular circumstances.

Q: Recently, I decided that I needed to get my affairs in order and get my will and living will executed. I called several attorneys to ask for quotes over the phone to get a general idea of what these documents would cost me. I must have called at least ten different attorneys, and most of them wouldn’t give me a quote over the phone.

Out of the four who did, the prices were quite different. For example, one attorney quoted me $200.00 for a will and the other quoted me $50.00. I was wondering, why aren’t attorneys required to charge a set amount for their services? Why is it possible for there to be such a discrepancy?

A: I knew I would get this question sooner or later, and I’m more than happy to explain the great mystery known as Attorney Fees to you. In fact, I’ll even go a step further and give you some tips on selecting an attorney.

Attorneys, just like any other profession, take a lot of pride in our work. Law is a vast and broad field of study, and most lawyers concentrate their studies in the areas that intrigue them. There is no “set” standard for setting attorneys fees, except that when setting our fees we are to evaluate how much time the case will take, how difficult the case is, how the case will affect the other cases we have in terms of time constraints, and how long we estimate that it will take to complete the case. We also factor in our years of experience and our areas of concentration. For example, an attorney who concentrates in Family Law and has twenty years of experience is going to charge higher fees than a general practitioner who does a little bit of everything.

Finding an attorney is just like buying a car or a new home in that most of the time, you get what you pay for. An attorney who is Board Certified is going to charge more, in most cases, than an attorney who is not. As long as the discrepancies in fees are not so great as to border on the ridiculous, and the attorney can back up the fees with an itemized bill, then it is likely that their fees would not be considered unreasonable.

Attorneys work on three basic fee structures- the contingency fee, the fixed fee, and the hourly fee.

A contingency fee will be used in a vast majority of personal injury cases, including automobile accidents, work-related injuries not covered by Workmen’s Compensation, and Medical Malpractice. The average fees charged in these cases is 33 percent of the amount awarded during the trial phase, 40 percent if the case is appealed, and up to 50 percent is the case is appealed to the Supreme Court. That sounds like a lot, until you look at the flip side of the deal- if you don’t win your case, you owe the attorney nothing. Not a dime. That means that your attorney might shell out $30,000 on medical tests, expert witnesses, mediation, depositions, and the like, and then lose the case. You would owe nothing. When you look at it that way, it isn’t a bad deal at all, because if it weren’t for the attorney’s willingness to offer you a contingency fee agreement, you most likely would not be able to afford to sue in the first place.

The fixed fee agreement is commonly used in Wills, Estate Planning, and other transactions that are document based, as well as some common Family Law areas such as Uncontested Divorce. Under this type of agreement, the attorney will charge you a flat fee for completing the work based on their assessment of what the average case like yours would cost. Then, even if it took longer or hit a snag, whatever you contracted for is all you would be required to pay. For example, if your attorney quoted you a fixed fee of $200.00 to draft your will and your living will and medical power of attorney, and then it took longer to draft than the average client’s, you would still only be required to pay the $200.00.

Finally, the third fee structure is the hourly fee. This structure will apply in most cases where litigation is expected, such as in Probate Cases, Landlord-Tenant, Contract lawsuits, and any other situation in which research and time are required. Child Custody and Contested Divorces are other good examples of this. Hourly rates vary according to areas of concentration, years of practice, extra training, and demand. Board Certified attorneys charge higher hourly rates, because they have more experience, they are specialists in their areas of concentration, and they have years of experience.

If you are on this type of fee arrangement, the attorney will collect a non-refundable retainer fee up front, and then bill against it as the case progresses. Once the retainer is used up, some attorneys will ask for another retainer, and others will simply send you a monthly bill that you must pay timely or else risk having your attorney withdraw from the case.

Here are some tips for finding the right attorney for you.

First, ask the attorney if they practice in the area that you need. You don’t want to hire a criminal attorney to pursue a landlord-tenant matter. A lot of attorneys offer a free initial consultation. Take advantage of it. Most attorneys will refer you to another attorney if they do not feel they can handle your case. Also, phone book ads are helpful because they list out what areas attorneys practice in.

Second, make sure that you are comfortable with your attorney. Trust is an essential ingredient to any good attorney-client relationship, and if you do not feel that you can trust the attorney you are interviewing, that is a good indication that you should interview a different one. We all have different personalities, and it is important to find the right fit. You’re going to be confiding confidential information to your attorney- it’s important that you be able to trust them.

Third, don’t expect price quotes over the phone. It is almost impossible for an attorney to give a quote over the phone because we don’t know all of the specifics of your case. Instead, ask if they offer a free initial consultation and if they do, take it! It’s better to meet the attorney face to face and get a realistic assessment of your situation so that you can make the best choices for yourself. Contrary to popular belief, a vast majority of attorneys want to make the world a better place, one case at a time.

Michelle Fulton is an attorney at The Fulton Law Firm, PLLC. If you have a legal problem you would like her to address, you may e-mail your request to or mail your request to her at 806 Hwy. 3, Houston, Texas 77058.

1. Legal Help: What Happens to Your Young Children When You Die? It May Not Be What You Think - August 5, 2004

2. Legal Help: Guardianship of Minors Is a Serious Issue - Plan Wisely - August 16, 2004

3. Legal Help: Designate Your Guardians in Accordance With the Law...and Do It Quietly - August 23, 2004 article

Legal Help: The Hard Truth: Landlords- Beware: Locking Out Tenants Can be Costly - Procedure for a proper lock-out - August 31, article

Legal Help: Security Deposits and the Burden of Proof - September 6, 2004 article

Legal Help: If You Donít Have A Will, The Government Will Make One For You - September 16, 2004 article

Legal Help: Read Your Lease, or Waive Your Rights - September 21, 2004 article

Legal Help: Plan Well and Avoid the Family Feud - October 2, 2004 article

Legal Help: Security Deposits and the Burden of Proof - October 7, 2004 article

Legal Help: Most Employment is At-Will - October 14, 2004 article

Legal Help: What You Donít Investigate Might Hurt You - October 21, 2004 article

Legal Help: What You Need to Know About Settling Insurance Claims - October 28, 2004 article

Legal Help: Child Custody Modification in Texas is Difficult, But Not Impossible - November 6, 2004 article

Legal Help: Read Before You Sign, or Risk Unpleasant Consequences - November 11, 2004 article

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