Excessive Legal Fees

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 What Determines How Much a Lawyer Costs?

Although the services of an attorney are typically not free, there is a common misconception that lawyers are unaffordable for most individuals. In reality, a legal professional will bill based on:

  • The value of their services;
  • The needs of their clients; and
  • Many other factors.

It may be difficult to determine how to choose the right attorney and cost is another factor that a client needs to keep in mind. An individual should expect to pay higher fees for a veteran lawyer in a large city than a newly licensed attorney in a rural area.

In addition to the expertise and location of a lawyer, there are also other factors that cause the costs to vary, including:

  • Type of representation: Put simply, the more complex the matter, the more likely it is to cost more for a lawyer’s services;
  • Services performed: If an attorney is performing multiple services, the overall cost of representation will also likely rise. However, a lawyer may offer to bundle such services at a fixed cost, keeping the overall expense of representation comparatively low; and
  • Fee arrangement: The fee arrangement with the attorney will ultimately make a huge difference in the overall cost of representation, for example, whether the attorney:
    • Billing on a contingency fee plus an hourly basis;
    • Requires a flat fee;
    • Is retained and advises on a need by need basis; or
    • Has been hired as in-house counsel.

Attorney fees will differ by area of law. For example, fees may be different for the following types of cases:

Did My Attorney Overcharge for My Case?

Lawyers are prohibited by their state bar associations from charging unconscionable or excessive legal fees. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to what constitutes unreasonable attorney fees.

The easiest way to determine whether a legal fee is excessive may be with hindsight vision. This means examining how happy the individual is with the results in light of the amount that they paid.

This does not necessarily depend on whether the individual won their case but, instead, whether the legal work was performed completely and efficiently. If, after considering these issues, an individual believes that their legal fees were excessive, they should contact their attorney to raise their concerns.

In some cases, the individual may be able to come to an agreement regarding the fee issue.

What Are Some Types of Legal Fees?

There are many different types of legal fees that a lawyer may charge include:

  • Hourly fees: This is where the attorney charges based on the amount of hours of work they put into your case. This is the most common fee arrangement, used in both civil and criminal cases. The total amount of hours will vary greatly depending on the nature of the case;
  • Flat fees: This is an overall charge paid up front for the entirety of the legal representation. It is usually employed when the services that will be required are more predictable, for example, in criminal cases;
  • Retainer fee: This is an advanced payment, similar to a down payment, when the lawyer is charging an hourly rate. The client’s money goes into the lawyer’s trust account and the lawyer will then deduct fees as the services are completed. Any remaining retainer fees are generally refundable to the client; and
  • Statutory fee: This is a fixed fee that is set by law or statute. Certain types of legal work require a court to approve the fee.

What Are Some Factors in Determining the Reasonableness of a Legal Fee?

In order to determine whether a legal fee is excessive, there are several factors that should be considered, including:

  • The amount of the legal fees charged in proportion to the value of the services that were performed;
  • The time and labor required;
  • The difficulty of the case as well as the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;
  • The likelihood that representation the client will preclude other employment by the attorney;
  • The legal fee that is customarily charged in the area for legal services of a comparable or similar nature;
  • The total fee amount involved and the results obtained;
  • Time limitations, whether they are imposed by the client or the circumstances of the representation;
  • The length and nature of the lawyer’s professional relationship with the client;
  • The lawyer’s experience, reputation, and ability;
  • The type of legal fee, such as fixed or contingent; and
  • The informed consent of the client to the legal fee.

The scope of the representation that will be performed and the rate of the fee and the expenses should be communicated to the client. It is best for this to be in writing, either before or within a reasonable time after representation begins.

If a client is regularly represented by the attorney on the same rate or basis, the attorney only needs to communicate any changes on the basis of the rate or the fee. In certain states, when the parties enter into a written contract in which the fees and costs are clearly established, the fees and costs that are charged in accordance with that contract shall be presumed reasonable.

What Is an Excessive Legal Fee?

Whether or not a legal fee is considered excessive will generally depend on the facts and circumstances of their particular case. Under the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, an attorney may not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an unreasonable fee or an unreasonable amount for expenses.

In general, this means that a fee will be considered reasonable unless it is clearly excessive. The ABA rules, however, are illustrative and are not binding.

Every state has adopted their own set of rules, typically modeled on the ABA rules, for when a legal fee is excessive. For example:

  • In California, a lawyer shall not enter into an agreement for, charge or collect an illegal or unconscionable fee;
  • In Florida, a lawyer shall not enter into an agreement for, charge, or collect an illegal, prohibited, or clearly excessive fee or cost;
  • In Illinois, a lawyer’s fee must be reasonable;
  • In New York, a lawyer shall not enter into an agreement for, charge or collect an illegal or excessive fee; and.
  • In Texas, a fee is considered unconscionable if a competent attorney could not form a reasonable belief that the fee is reasonable.

What Can I Do to Fight Excessive Attorney Fees?

If an individual feels that their lawyer has charged them excessive fees to their legal services, there may be several steps they can take. In some situations, an individual may be able to request a refund of attorneys legal fees.

An individual can file a complaint against their lawyer with the American Bar Association. If an individual is not able to resolve their issue in those ways, they may be able to sue the lawyer for malpractice.

Should I Seek Outside Legal Assistance?

If you believe your lawyer has charged you excessive attorneys’ fees, it may be helpful to consult with a liability lawyer.

Your lawyer can review your case, including any representation contracts you may have signed, determine if the fees were excessive, and assist you in receiving compensation.


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