If you need assistance outside of the services offered by your military legal assistance office and cannot get a civilian attorney to handle your matter pro bono, you may have to hire a lawyer who will charge attorney’s fees. Lawyers are ethically obligated to charge only "reasonable"—and not excessive—fees. The method used to charge fees is one of the things to consider in deciding if a fee is reasonable. You should understand the different fee structures before you make any hiring decision. At your first meeting, the lawyer should estimate how much the total case will cost and inform you of the method he or she will use to charge for the work. As with any bill, you should not pay without first getting an explanation for any charges you do not understand. The following questions and answers should provide you some guidance on these issues.
What billing method do most lawyers use?
The most common billing method is to charge a set amount for each hour of time the lawyer works on your case. More experienced lawyers tend to charge more per hour than those with less experience—but they also may take less time to do the same legal work. In addition, the same lawyer will usually charge more for time spent in the courtroom than for hours spent in the office or library.
Is there anyway to set a flat fee so I will know what I am paying up front?
Lawyers may use a flat fee in handling certain cases where the work involved is usually straightforward, predictable, and routine. Thus some lawyers may use flat fees or set rates in uncontested divorces, simple wills, traffic tickets and misdemeanors, adoptions and name changes.
What if my case is quick and hardly takes the lawyer any time at all. Will I get money back?
A flat fee is usually paid ahead of time and does not vary depending on the amount of time or work involved. No refund is due if the work takes less time than expected and no additional charge is made if the case is longer or more complex than usual.
What are contingent fees?
A client pays a contingent fee to a lawyer only if the lawyer handles a case successfully. Lawyers and clients use this arrangement only in cases where money is being claimed—most often in cases involving personal injury or workers' compensation.
In a contingent fee arrangement, the lawyer agrees to accept a fixed percentage (often one-third to 40 percent) of the recovery, which is the amount finally paid to the client. If you win the case, the lawyer's fee comes out of the money awarded to you. If you lose, neither you nor the lawyer will get any money, but you will not be required to pay your attorney for the work done on the case.
On the other hand, win or lose, you probably will have to pay court filing fees, the costs related to gathering evidence, and similar charges.
If my lawyer and I agree to a contingent fee arrangement, shouldn't the method of settling my case affect the amount of my lawyer's fee?
Yes, but only if both of you agree beforehand. Lawyers settle most personal injury cases through negotiations with insurance companies; such cases rarely require a trial in court. If the lawyer settles the case before going to trial, this requires less legal work. You can try to negotiate an agreement in which the lawyer accepts a lower percentage if he or she settles the case easily and quickly or before a lawsuit is filed in court.
Are there other ways that my attorney can charge fees?
Yes. If an hourly fee or a contingent fee doesn’t work for you, talk to the attorney you would like to hire and see if you can work out another arrangement. Given the current economic situation across the nation, some lawyers have begun to offer more flexible payment structures, including set monthly fees and allowing clients to pay in installments.
Is there anything I can do to reduce my legal costs?
Yes, there are several cost-cutting methods available to you. First, answer all your lawyer's questions fully and honestly. It will save time and help your lawyer do a better job.
Remember that the ethics of the profession bind your lawyer to maintain in the strictest confidence almost anything you reveal during your private discussions. It is particularly important to tell your lawyer facts about your case that reflect poorly on you. These will almost certainly come out if your case goes to trial.
Can I reduce my legal costs if I get more involved in my case?
Sometimes. Stay informed and ask for copies of important documents related to your case. Let your lawyer know if you are willing to help out, such as by picking up or delivering documents or by making a few telephone calls.
Can I shop around to get a better deal?
You should feel free to compare various attorneys, but don't just shop for the lowest fee. The cheapest lawyer is not necessarily the worst or the best, and the most expensive one may not be the right one for you. Be sure to consider factors such as location, accessibility, personality, time available, and experience in your problem area.