What You Should Expect to Pay
At our first meeting, you will usually know up front how much you will likely have to pay for your case to be handled from beginning to end.
Based on the facts of your case, we will discuss my fee structure, which is almost always based on one of four billing categories. The category we ultimately agree upon will reflect what best serves your legal needs and financial ability to pursue your case, while also providing me some assurance that I am receiving a fair wage for my representation of you.
- Deposit - hourly: I charge $175 per hour, and I almost always require a deposit of at least $2500. A deposit is different from a retainer in that for each hour I work on your case, I will "charge" you $175. The number of hours I work on your case, multiplied by my hourly rate, yields a running total that is deducted from your deposit. I will require subsequent $2500 deposits as the amount of time I spend on your case depletes each deposit to a balance near $500. This fee arrangement will continue until my representation of you ends. I find this fee category to be the one where a client has the most control of his or her case. The client can end my representation at any time, and I will refund any amount left on the last deposit that I have not yet "charged".
- Flat Fee: Almost all of my cases are handled under this fee arrangement. Under this category, you will pay me a lump-sum for the handling of your entire case. This lump sum - again, usually based on $175 per hour - will be determined by sitting down with you and discussing how much time I think it will take to resolve your case. The advantage of this billing category is that it will usually result in the client paying less, overall, as my estimates are very conservative. The disadvantage is that the client must pay the entire fee at the outset of my representation, and the fee is not subject to a refund if the case is ultimately lost. The most common case where I charge a flat fee is for a no-fault/living apart divorce where no children or community property are involved. If both parties desire the divorce, and they are willing to cooperate in signing and accepting documents without requiring service by a sheriff, I can obtain a divorce within 5 working days, and neither party has to appear in court. For this type of case, I charge $500 for my fee, and add court costs (which varies depending on the parish in which suit is filed).
- Contingency Fee - This category is most often used for personal injury claims, such as car accidents, slip-and-falls, and on-the-job injuries. A contingency fee operates with the attorney applying an agreed-upon percentage to the total amount you, the client, ultimately receives at the end of your case. This total could be by a verdict from a judge or jury, a lump-sum settlement where you are paid one amount within 30 days of the date of settlement, or a structured settlement where the settlement funds are paid over time in installments. Structured settlements are usually larger than lump-sum settlements because the company paying the settlement does not have to pay a large amount at one time. In the event the client opts for a structured settlement, my contingency fee will be based on the undiscounted total the client will ultimately receive over time.
For workers' compensation cases only, Louisiana law has capped an attorney's contingency fee percentage at 20% of any amount received by an injured worker. Although that amount is set by statute, a Louisiana Workers' Compensation Judge must nevertheless approve any lump-sum settlements. The only instance where a cap on attorney's fees is not regulated by a set statutory amount (other than it must be "reasonable") is in workers' compensation cases where an employer/insurer has mismanaged an employee's workers' compensation claim and a judge awards attorney's fees to the litigant's attorney based on what that judge deems reasonable.
- Retainer - hourly: This is the least-used category. A retainer is a lump-sum amount that the client and I agree upon at the outset of my representation. By paying it, you "retain" me as your attorney to handle any legal problems that may arise for a set period of time. Although my usual hourly fee is $175 per hour, that rate is reduced to $100 per hour for any time I spend in handling any legal issues that arise under a "retainer agreement". This category is most often used where a client has a business that needs legal counsel on "standby" for help in resolving disputes, drafting and reviewing contracts, and filing or defending lawsuits. In effect, the retainer results in me being available to render legal services to you at any time (within reason) during the retainer-time, and the retainer you pay up-front entitles you to a discounted hourly rate.
Expenses and Court Costs
The above description of fee-categories does not include out-of-pocket expenses and court costs. My fees are based on my legal knowledge and my legal ability to handle your disputes by way of the time I spend on your case. Out-of-pocket expenses and court costs are set amounts that are supported by documentation of the charges.
Sometimes, my representation of a client will require me to travel out of town (traveling more than 25 miles one-way is considered "out of town") and spend the night in a hotel. I charge a set amount per mile of travel (based on the amount the IRS permits as business mileage deduction) and I charge the cost for staying at a hotel (the hotel cost is determined by the location of the hotel and will be one that charges a reasonable nightly rate based on the average nightly rate charged by other similar hotels in the area).
On occasion, especially in personal injury cases, I will have to pay a health care provider to examine a client, run tests, and produce reports and copies of medical records. The client is responsible for these charges, and the amount the client must reimburse me will never be more than the amount the health care provider charged me.
Finally, cases involving litigation result in court costs. Clerks of court require an initial payment to file a suit, and also require payment to respond to a suit. Included in "court costs" are items such as deposition fees, subpoena fees, and witness fees. Again, the client is responsible for these costs, and the amount the client must reimburse me will never be more than the actual amount of the costs.
In sum, I do not profit from expenses and court costs by marking up the cost charged to me by the person rendering the service. The client will be obligated to reimburse me the same amount that I had to pay when I incurred the expenses and costs.
To lessen the chance of any misunderstanding on the part of a client, I require that client to sign a contract with me as soon as he selects me as his attorney. That contract will set forth the fee category we agreed upon for my representation, and explain in detail how that category will work during my representation of you.
Although all legal representations do not require written contracts, I have found it best to have such a contract signed by everyone, no matter how large or small the dispute.
How Hourly Billing Can Be So Easily Misunderstood
Lastly, I want to emphasize how easy and quickly it is for a client to run up a large legal bill without realizing he is doing so, no matter how well I explained my fee structure.
If a client’s fee arrangement is such that the client will be charged by the hour, the client must understand that the "attorney's hourly fee" portion of the total bill will be based exclusively on the time spent by me on his case. If the client calls me to ask questions that just "popped into the client’s head", the client must realize that I will charge him for the time it takes me to answer the client's questions. If opposing counsel calls me to discuss an upcoming hearing, the client must realize that I will charge the client for the time I spent discussing his case with opposing counsel. If I have to file a motion with the court as part of my strategy for winning the client's case, the client must understand that I will charge the client for the time spent preparing and filing that motion.
What may seem to a client to be a trivial task or an easy question to answer, should not lead the client to conclude he will not be charged by me to perform that task or answer that question. In most instances, I will not charge for every phone call or every email that I have to send or respond to - but the client must understand that I have the right to do so.
As an example, I had a client (who, obviously, must remain anonymous) who constantly called me to discuss their case immediately after I became that client's attorney. After three calls and several emails in just one day, I explained to the client: "I want to make sure you understand that for each call and email I read and respond to, my 'clock' is running on your bill." After about a month of at least one call (sometimes more) every day, including weekends, along with numerous emails, the client became very upset upon receipt of my first bill. That bill detailed all of the time I spent responding to the client's calls and responding to literally dozens of emails. The client did not dispute any of the items I had listed and billed for - the client acknowledged that every item listed was accurate as far as date incurred, time spent, and task performed. The client's "complaint" was that because many of my email responses were made "after hours" (such as late in the evening or on weekends), I should not have billed for that time. But as I explained: my fee does not depend on when or where I spent time advancing or defending a client's case. The validity and reasonableness of a line item on a bill is determined by asking if that line item accurately represents a task performed by me for the client that helped the client’s case in some way. After the client acknowledged he understood the concept of "hourly billing", and that an attorney often works on cases after 5 PM and on weekends, he agreed that my bill was reasonable. His rate of phone calls and emails also dropped to about one each per week.
The Often Misunderstood "Legal Research"
One item on legal bills that clients almost always question is "legal research". They believe that when they employ an attorney, that attorney should already know the law and be prepared to immediately move forward with prosecuting or defending the case.
An attorney has an obligation to explain to the client what is meant by "legal research".
The issue usually arises when the client receives a bill with billing entries worded something similar to "legal research regarding issue X", or "research to determine how to defend opposing side's argument Y". No matter how much experience and knowledge an attorney has with the issues in a case, that attorney has an obligation to both the client and the court to ensure that the arguments raised are valid and have not been overturned by either a recent case or a legislative amendment. Although I, along with all other attorneys, attend mandatory continuing legal education courses every year to keep abreast of changes in the law, those courses are no substitute for researching one's arguments every time before going to court. I have seen too often an attorney arguing a case in court, only to be told by a judge - sometimes in mid-argument - that a major case that attorney cited in his brief and is relying on, was overturned a month before. That is not only embarrassing, it is a disservice to the client. Before filing a brief or arguing a point in court, an attorney should be prepared with the latest law - that is a major part of what a client pays for.