Choosing a Lawyer

Lawyer Payment Plans: 9 Ways to Pay for a Lawyer

Sometimes it can feel like everything in life is stacked against you. You need a lawyer to represent you during an important time in your life, but you do not know if you can afford one. Maybe you do have enough money to afford an attorney, but not a well-regarded one. If your lawyer comes at a bargain price, you are likely to get bargain results. But how do you pay for a lawyer? We found nine ways to help pay for your legal representation, in addition to the steps you should take before you hire a lawyer.

While bargain lawyers may lead to bargain results, you should not assume a lawyer is going to deliver for you just because they cost a lot. When looking for a lawyer, you want to find the perfect balance between cost and experience.

No attorney is going to be cheap. Even the bargain attorneys are going to require a significant amount of money over the course of your case. But your legal representation should not suffer even if you don’t have quite enough money to pay for an experienced lawyer that has handled cases similar to yours.

Understanding Lawyer’s Fees

Lawyers are advised by the American Bar Association to detail their fees in writing soon after beginning working for you. But only a few states require lawyers to disclose their fees before taking on the job. With that said, no matter what state you live in, decide on a fee agreement with your lawyer in advance in order to know exactly what you are paying for.

Lawyers typically do not have standard fees. Your prospective lawyer will base their fee on their reputation, the amount of overhead that will go into the case, the going rate for the legal issue you have, and their experience on this type of case.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

In many legal situations, a lawyer will not be necessary. But it can be hard to know whether or not you would benefit from hiring an attorney to represent you. There are many different ways for you to get professional advice for free before committing to hiring a lawyer. Seek out assistance in advance of hiring an attorney to fully understand your situation, options, and how you may benefit from hiring a lawyer.

If it turns out that you do need a lawyer but cannot afford one, you have a few different options for finding free legal assistance.

Do This First Before Hiring a Lawyer

You do not want to rush into hiring a lawyer. First, you should be aware of exactly what you are dealing with and what kind of assistance you will need. Further, you may qualify for free or reduced rates on your legal services, depending on your circumstances and the organizations in your local city.

Contact Your Local Courthouse

If you are looking to hire an attorney for a divorce, you may be able to find free help if the divorce is uncontested. Call your local courthouse to find out if there might be something available.

Seek Out Free Consultations in Advance

You may not be completely sure if you need a lawyer because you are unaware of exactly what kind of legal matter you are dealing with. Many lawyers will offer free consultations, which can help you to determine precisely how serious of a situation you’re in and if you need an attorney.

Call Your Local Bar Association

If you would rather not seek out a free consultation or there are none available, you can always call your local bar association. They will answer your legal questions free of charge.

Nine Ways to Pay for a Lawyer

The following are nine different ways you can pay for your legal services:

1. Hourly Rate

An hourly rate is a common way to pay for a lawyer. However many hours your attorney works on your case, that is how much you will owe. But make sure to get an estimate upfront of how many hours you should expect to be billed. More experienced lawyers will charge higher hourly rates. But they also may be able to get your work done faster.

2. Flat Fee

A flat fee agreement is typically used in a one-off situation where you engage a lawyer for a specific service. Examples of this could be hiring a lawyer to write a will or a real estate attorney to represent you from signing a contract to closing on your new home.

For more complicated issues, a flat fee is likely not going to be an option. And if an attorney is offering you a flat fee that appears to be a bargain, you are likely going to receive cut-rate results.

3. Contingency Fee

A contingency fee is a safe way to pay a lawyer if you are filing a lawsuit. In the case of a contingency, your attorney receives a percentage of however much money you are awarded in your lawsuit. If you receive nothing, your attorney does not get paid. You will, however, still owe court fees and other related expenses.

The contingency fee option works best if you don’t have enough money upfront to pay for your lawyer. If you win, though, you may end up paying a lot more for your attorney than you would have otherwise.

Before agreeing to a contingency fee, consider the following:

  • The amount of the contingency fee is completely negotiable –Typically, the fee will be a percentage of however much money you are awarded. Remember, there is no standard fee, so feel free to negotiate down to a number that you are comfortable with. You can consider a sliding scale contingency, such as 25 percent for anything up to $15,000 and 15 percent for anything up to $50,000.
  • The size of the fee should fit the job – If your case is a relative slam dunk, the contingency fee should be lower to represent the amount of work your attorney will have to do. If the case is complicated, a higher fee may be warranted. Your state could have rules about a cap on how high a contingency fee can go.

4. Prepaid Plans

Prepaid plans work similarly to an insurance policy. You pay a set amount each month, and in return, you will receive legal assistance as needed. Not every legal organization will offer prepaid plans. You may see a prepaid plan offered by your employer, a labor union, and many other various companies.

The fee may be as low as $100 per year, but you may not end up saving any money in the long run. Prepaid plans will also not help you in court or if you have a more serious matter. Typically, a $100 annual plan will cover simple items like making a will and a few phone consultations.

A more expensive plan can cover more complicated legal services, such as driving under the influence, divorces, and bankruptcy. If you believe those issues are on the horizon, perhaps a prepaid plan is right for you. But most people cannot anticipate these life situations, which is why this is referred to as legal insurance. Many times, insurance does come in handy. But many other times, you end up paying for something and never need to use it.

Ultimately, with the amount of free legal advice that should be available to you, prepaid plans aren’t worth the money in most situations.

5. Retainer

Many attorneys ask for a fee upfront, called a retainer. The retainer is a down payment for early expenses and fees and acts as collateral to the attorney for the work they are about to do for you.

A retainer may seem unnecessary, but it helps to get the relationship with your attorney off to a good start. For more experienced lawyers, knowing that you are serious about the services they can provide will make it more likely that they will take on your case.

Retainers are also helpful for you because you have a better idea of your expenses upfront. Rather than get pulled down a long road of legal fees you did not anticipate, retainers allow you to know how much money you will need to budget for your legal fees.

A retainer will be placed in a separate account to ensure that the money is not co-mingled with your attorney’s money. When the retainer money is used, the hours worked and expenses paid for are all itemized for you to review.

6. Public Legal Services

Many areas have organizations that offer low-cost or free legal assistance, depending on your situation. For example, if you are dealing with a landlord/tenant situation, you may qualify for free or reduced rates on legal assistance. Make sure to check all the organizations in your area to see if you qualify.

7. Seek Out Legal Aid

Similarly, if you have low income, you may qualify for free legal assistance. There are legal aid societies across every state that could potentially provide people with free legal services depending on their circumstances.

8. Help Your Attorney

To help reduce fees, you can ask a lawyer if some of their work could be done by a paralegal or a junior lawyer to help cut down on the hourly rate. You could also ask if there are any tasks that you could take on yourself, such as picking up or copying documents.

9. Represent Yourself

This last option is not recommended, but it should be included. If you have exhausted your options and have no other alternatives, you can represent yourself. While this option is not recommended, that does not mean that there haven’t been success stories of people representing themselves and winning their case.

Some who have been successful at representing themselves suggest that you sit in court every day for a week or two. This will allow you to take in the scene and know what you are getting yourself into. You can use this opportunity to introduce yourself to the courtroom clerk and get familiar with the people you will be dealing with. Sitting in court will also give you an insight into the judge that may be presiding over your case.

But most people do not have the time to research law in their spare hours or have the opportunity to sit in court for over a week. Representing yourself without first educating yourself is likely not going to end well.

What to Expect When You Hire an Attorney

There are three basic tenants to expect whenever you hire an attorney, no matter what the cost is or what services you need:

  • Quality communication
  • Competency in the field
  • Ethics

The last thing you can always count on from a lawyer is legal fees.


The level of communication between you and your attorney is one of the most important aspects of your relationship and, potentially, the outcome of your case. To make sure that the communication flows easily, you should let your lawyer know the best way to contact you and the times you have available to talk.

From the outset, your lawyer should be explaining every option available to you in your case. You should be discussing strategy and providing your attorney with every last bit of information that could be helpful.

Your lawyer should be providing you with a timeline of when important events are taking place and when to expect the case to progress. Your lawyer should also be quickly returning phone calls and answering any questions you may have. But you should also understand that your lawyer may have many different clients, so allow a level of patience if your phone call is not immediately returned.


You may think that competency goes without saying. But you cannot simply assume that your lawyer is going to provide you with quality services.

It can be hard to define what equals a job well done at the conclusion of your case. In a criminal case, you may be expecting that a complete acquittal would equate to your lawyer doing a job well done. However, your attorney may consider a good job to be getting a reduction in your charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.

No outcome is guaranteed, no matter how much experience your attorney has. What you should expect is that your attorney is well-versed in your legal matter and has a plan of how to help you based on previous experience.

Attorney Malpractice

Malpractice is another issue entirely. If your lawyer makes a mistake that no reasonable attorney should make and it costs you, that is considered attorney malpractice, and you have legal recourse.

Common examples of attorney malpractice include:

  • Preparation – This is when a lawyer takes your case but has little training or experience in your legal matter. An inexperienced lawyer is much more likely to make an error that a competent lawyer would not. When this happens, it is considered malpractice.
  • Deadlines – Missing a key deadline can be a clear example of legal malpractice. Typically, in each state, there is a statute of limitations on when you can file a lawsuit. If your attorney fails to file on time, they may have cost you greatly. If so, you can start a malpractice suit against them.
  • Facts – If a lawyer fails to learn all the facts in your case, you may have a malpractice case against them. Lawyers will tell you that lawsuits are 90 percent facts and 10 percent law. Failing to learn all the facts can cost you dearly.
  • Inconsistency – Some contracts contain language that has contradicting provisions. A negligent attorney that does not catch and correct these inconsistencies may have committed malpractice.
  • Communication – If your lawyer fails to communicate with you, it could be considered malpractice. You are owed proper communication during a case and should always be making the final decision when considering various options. If your lawyer fails to communicate one of these options to you, it could be worth pursuing a lawsuit.
  • Settling – If your lawyer settles too soon, they could be costing you. In an injury case, you should wait until the full scale of your injuries is discovered before settling the case.

Malpractice suits are difficult to win and expensive to carry out. You should only consider a malpractice suit if you and another attorney believe that you have an excellent chance of winning the case.


Every state has its own ethical code that lawyers must follow. Typically, a code of ethics will require attorneys to do the following:

  • Remain completely loyal to their client
  • Keep everything that is said between the two of you private
  • Represent your best interests as far as the law will allow
  • Put your interests ahead of their own

If your attorney is practicing unethically, they may be liable for legal malpractice.

Legal Fees

The final aspect to expect from your attorney is your legal fees. Make sure you have a complete understanding of how much work is expected to be done and how much it may cost you before hiring an attorney.

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