24 May 2010

How Your Lawyer Charges You

This seemed like an appropriate follow up post to my article about the cuts to legal aid.

By the Hour

Family law lawyers bill for their services by the hour. Other lawyers, like the lawyers who handle personal injury and wrongful dismissal claims, bill on a contingency basis, meaning that they work for a percentage of the settlement; family law lawyers don't do this, we bill by the time spent working on your file.

"Working on your file" encompasses a lot of different activities, as broad as the phrase suggests. In addition to the obvious things, like time spent in court or attending mediation, family law lawyers bill for reading letters and writing them, making telephone calls and taking them, researching legal problems, drafting court documents, consulting experts and giving instructions to them, and so on.

The amount of a lawyer's rate is usually, but not always, related to things like the length of time the lawyer has been practicing and the hourly rate of the other members of the lawyer's firm. When you're hiring a lawyer, make sure you get his or her hourly rate and the rates of any other members of the firm who might wind up working on your file.


Most family law lawyers work on a retainer basis. "Retainer" has a lot of different meanings. In this context, it means an amount of money the lawyer asks you to pay up front. As time goes by, the lawyer will bill you for his or her services and pay the bill by withdrawing money from your retainer. When, after a number of bills, the retainer is empty, the lawyer will usually ask you for another retainer payment. Essentially, your retainer is security for the lawyer's future fees.

The size of the retainer the lawyer asks for will depend on a lot of things, including the perceived complexity of the file, urgency, the amount of work the lawyer thinks he or she will have to do in short order, and the number of court appearances the lawyer anticipates in the near future. When a trial is looming, the lawyer will ask for an extra retainer roughly equal to the working hours the lawyer expects the trial to consume. Unless the lawyer says so, the amount of the retainer requested is not a flat rate, quote or estimate of the total cost of resolving your file.

The retainer you give to your lawyer is your money. If your file concludes or your and your lawyer part ways before your retainer is exhausted, you will get the balance of your retainer back.

Flat Rates

Sometimes a family law lawyer will agree to work for a fixed fee. There aren't very many legal activities in family law that are suited for flat rates, but those that leap to mind are: simple divorces, separation agreements, marriage and cohabitation agreements, relative adoptions, and giving independent legal advice about an agreement.

Initial Consultations

Unless the lawyer advertises that your first meeting with him or her is free, expect to be charged for the consultation at the lawyer's usual hourly rate. Relatively few lawyers, and even fewer family law lawyers, offer free initial consultations. Never assume that your first meeting is free.

Remember that family law lawyers bill for for their time. You would expect to pay something when the mechanic puts your car up on the hoist or your plumber diagnoses a problem with your washing machine; lawyers are doing pretty much the same thing when you meet with them for legal advice, and you'll get a bill for their services just like your would from your mechanic or your plumber. If you have any questions about whether there will be a charge for the lawyer's time and advice, ask up front.