DEMYSTIFYING LEGAL FEES
In my last post I spoke about the process of narrowing your list of candidate attorneys down to the one you want to hire to represent you. I recommended that you make interview appointments with at least three local attorneys you have chosen. During the interview you will be looking for the attorneys whom you feel most comfortable dealing with, who communicate well with you and who have the experience in the type of case you have to earn your, and your opponent’s, respect. Once you narrow your list down to those individuals, it’s time to talk about money.
How Much Is That Lawyer In The Window?
As you interview attorneys for your legal matter, you are likely to find that between them they charge significantly different fees. Some will seem very high, others very low. Some attorneys prefer to charge an hourly rate, based upon the work they do. That is most common in business legal cases and contested family law matters. Other attorneys may quote you a flat rate fee, which is meant to cover the entire case, regardless of the number of hours the attorney ultimately puts into it. Many times you will find some kind of “hybrid” approach to attorney’s fees – either a sliding scale, in which the fee increases as the case progresses; or a non-refundable retainer with a provision for an hourly rate should the amount of work done on your case exceed initial expectations.
Some cases, which usually involve injury or monetary damages, might be handled under a special form of fee arrangement called a “contingency fee”. Contingency fees are usually determined by a percentage of any money “won” in a case and collected. If you don’t win, you don’t have to pay your attorney. The percentages are usually fairly high, between fifteen and forty percent of the settlement or awarded amount, because the attorney must take a chance on handling the case and not collecting any money. This type of fee arrangement allows people who might not otherwise afford an attorney to pursue their rights in court. Contingency fees are not allowed by the Florida Bar for criminal cases or divorce cases. If you have the type of case in which contingency is allowed, the attorneys you meet with will evaluate your case and tell you if they are willing to accept the case on a contingent basis.
You may have heard that attorneys will take some cases and handle them for free, under what is called a “pro bono publico” basis. This is from a Latin phrase meaning “for the public good”. In a pro bono case the attorney will handle the case without charge, as a service to the poor and society in general. The Florida Bar recommends that each attorney perform at least twenty hours of pro bono legal service each year. Many attorneys perform more than that amount. While it may not hurt to ask attorneys if they would be willing to accept your case pro bono, you should not expect it. Attorneys often prefer to receive their pro bono case as referrals from legal aid organizations, who will first determine that the client is indigent and meets the financial guidelines for pro bono work. Also, for criminal charges, the Public Defenders Office is available to provide legal representation for the indigent.
It’s All About Timing
Whether an attorney quotes you a flat rate, hourly or “hybrid” type fee, all of those are really based upon a prediction of how much time that attorney predicts he or she will spend on your case. Abraham Lincoln, who was a successful trial lawyer prior to becoming our sixteenth president, once said, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” When you retain an attorney, what you are buying are the time and attention of that lawyer to you and to your case and the lawyer’s advice and opinions as to the best course of action to take in your case. The attorney that quotes you a “flat rate” fee is really just making an estimate of the number of hours he or she will be spending on your legal matter. Sometimes the attorney may be able to successfully end your case in a short amount of time. In that case, the attorney probably came out ahead monetarily. Other times the case may drag on, for various reasons, far longer than the attorney expected. In that case the attorney may lose out monetarily by spending more of their “stock in trade” than they intended, without getting any extra pay for it.
Hourly rates for legal services vary widely. Hourly rates in the Tampa Bay area typically range from $90 to $350 dollars an hour, based upon the type of legal work and the experience of the attorney. You can ask the attorney to lower the hourly rate for you, but, generally, unless you are bringing a high-volume amount of work to that law firm, expect to be charged the normal rate for that attorney. Whichever hourly rate an attorney is using to calculate the retainer fee, the one thing that you could control is the attorney’s perception of the amount of time that is going to be spent on your case.
Time’s A Wastin’
The first thing to remember when you are speaking with an attorney about your case is that “time is money”. The more prepared you are at presenting your case to the attorney the better. Before the consultation meetings, gather all the documents and facts of your case in a logical order. It is helpful to write down a concise narrative of the facts of your case, including names, addresses and telephone numbers of witnesses and other involved parties. Documents can be photocopied before meeting with the attorneys so that you just give copies to the attorney you decide to hire, rather than paying the attorney to copy them for you. When telling the attorney about your case, give an overall, objective view of the facts, not just those facts that help you. It is in your best interests for the attorney to know both the good and the bad about your legal problem in order to decide the best way to help you. One mistake potential clients sometimes make is to present the attorney with an overly-optimistic view of the defenses available, thinking that if the attorney believes that the case is an easy one to win, he or she will charge less. In fact, almost the opposite is usually true. The more defenses and witnesses that are involved in a case, the longer that case is going to take to investigate and defend. With each new tale of a possible defense, a wrongful persecution or a conspiracy among the other side, the attorney is calculating more and more time that will have to be spent running down these defenses and presenting the worthy ones in court.
Once an attorney decides to accept your case and quotes you a fee, whether it is a flat-rate, hourly or hybrid fee, it is fair to ask the attorney if he or she would accept less. Whether the attorney agrees to negotiate the fee lower or not, no harm will be done by asking. Realize that many attorneys will have already set the fee as low as they are willing to make them before they quoted it to you. Legal practice is very competitive and most attorneys realize that you are speaking with other attorneys and getting fee quotes from them as well.
If you would like to hire the attorney but cannot afford to pay the entire retainer fee up front, don’t hesitate to ask the attorney if a payment plan could be arranged. Some attorneys will tell you this is available up-front. Others will wait until a client asks about it. Attorneys will vary widely in their willingness to agree to payments for legal fees, so as before, it will not hurt to ask.
Garry L. Potts is a former 15 year prosecutor and former insurance defense trial lawyer. Garry L. Potts handles legal matters in the following practice areas: Criminal Law, Civil Practice, Driving While Intoxicated, Breath test Refusals, Drivers License Revocations or Suspensions, Assault and Battery, Felonies, Misdemeanors, Sealing & Expungement, Traffic Violations, Theft, Personal Injury, Automobile Accidents, Wrongful Death, Family Law, Child Custody & Support, Divorces, Wills, Trusts and Probate. With over 22 years of experience and more than 100 jury trials, Garry Potts is one of the most experienced attorneys in the Tampa Bay area.
The Law Office of Garry L. Potts
13575 58th Street North, Suite 126, Clearwater, Florida 33760
Web site: www.GPottsLaw.com
Web site: Clearwater DUI Attorney