Intro: Average Attorneys & Lawyer Fees | How Much Does a Lawyer Cost?

So you have found yourself in some sort of legal matter, and you need to hire an attorney. Undoubtedly, one of the first questions you are asking yourself is, “How much does a lawyer cost?”

Here is an overview of what you should expect from legal fees in 2017. This article will help answer all the common questions regarding average lawyer fees, including:

  • How much does a lawyer cost?
  • What types of legal fees should I expect?
  • How much do lawyers charge an hour?
  • How does the process work when a lawyer prices his or her fees?
  • What if I cannot afford average lawyer fees?
  • Are there any hidden costs added to the average cost of a lawyer?

Common Types of Attorney Fees

Understanding average attorney fees demands understanding how attorneys actually bill their clients. There is not a simple one-way approach for payment.

attorney fees

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There are currently four common fee structures your attorney could use for their services:

  • Flat Fee
  • Attorney Hourly Rate
  • Retainer
  • Contingency Fee

All four have very different outcomes when it comes to how much you are paying in legal fees.

We will explain how each of these types works and also show you what to expect for average attorney fees with each one.

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Legal Fees Type 1: Flat Fee

If you are entering a simple legal matter, your lawyer fees may be based on a flat fee model. A lawyer prices this fee in such a way that you should be covering his or her estimated hourly rate. Since it is a simple matter, the lawyer already has a good idea exactly how much time is involved.

Flat attorney fees are more common under these proceedings:

  • Wills: For wills, the average lawyer fees for a flat rate will be around $1,000
  • Uncontested Divorces: The average cost of a lawyer charging a flat fee for an uncontested divorce is between $200 and $1,500
  • Bankruptcy: With a bankruptcy case, the average flat fee is often between $500 and $6,000
  • Some Criminal: Greatly varies

While flat fees may not be as common as hourly lawyer fees, they do help the client know the lawyer will be working efficiently and quickly. The downside to a flat attorney fees is that your representative may not do as much as an hourly-rate attorney, due to payment constraints.

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Legal Fees Type 2: Attorney Hourly Rate

The most common type of attorney fees is an hourly rate model. How much do lawyers charge an hour? The charge depends on multiple factors, including:

  • The complexity of your case
  • How long the attorney has been out of school
  • The case’s expenses
  • Where you live
  • How much money is at stake

The most expensive lawyers are now charging upwards of $1,500 per hour for the elite, but the average attorney hourly rate is nowhere near that high. The typical person can expect to pay between $200 and $520.

In 2014, The National Law Journal posted the results of an hourly billing survey from law firms. It showed the average attorney hourly rate for partners was $604, and associates charged $307.

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The Laffey Matrix

One helpful way to determine what to expect for an attorney hourly rate is to check Laffey Matrix. This legal guide is the official fee schedule of the Washington-Baltimore area and shows reasonable rates, depending on how long they have been out of school.

There are many other areas that use this matrix to determine lawyer fees as well. But even if your area is not using the Laffey Matrix officially, it can be a useful guide to show you a starting place.

Of course, if you are in a much smaller town with a simple case, you should expect lower legal fees. And if you are in a big city with a complex case, you should expect higher average attorney fees.

For 2017, the Laffey Matrix guide shows as follows:

Average Attorneys Fees & Lawyer Costs

Years Out of School

Average Attorney Hourly Rate

1 – 3


4 – 7


8 – 10


11 – 19


20 +


Table: Average hourly attorney fees – years out of school

Legal Fees Type 3: Retainer

Retainers are pre-funding any lawyers fees you may have in the future. You offer payments in advance for your legal representation. Whenever these attorneys work for you, they deduct their legal fees from the amount you have already given them.

Typically, when you have a lawyer on retainer, this gives you preference over some of the lawyer’s other work or clients. Retainers are generally only used by those who need repeated legal help. Retainers are most often used by:

  • Businesses who need frequent legal counsel and representation
  • Individuals (often quite wealthy) who also need frequent legal counsel and representation
  • Anyone who needs immediate legal services without much of a wait time

Since retainers are only advanced payment, there are no real average lawyer fees for retainers. It is up to the discretion of the person or company for whatever types of legal services they require.

A note on retainers: Having your lawyer on retainer should not be confused with paying a retainer fee (discussed below). Retainer fees are legal fees your lawyer may charge to start representing you.

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Legal Fees Type 4: Contingency Fee

The fourth type of lawyer fees you will commonly see is the contingency fee. Instead of paying your lawyer a certain amount whether you win or lose, contingency fees are a percentage you agree to give your lawyer from your settlement, only if you win your case.

Contingency legal fees are common for:

  • Car accidents
  • Personal injury
  • Employment law issues
  • Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) violations

The average attorney fees, when using the contingency method, are around 1/3 of the settlement, or 33%.  Of course, if the case is quite large, these legal fees could drop; if the case is quite small, they could possibly rise.

Many people think a contingency plan is the safest bet since they do not pay if they lose. But the average lawyer fees with a contingency plan are often higher than they would be if the lawyer had charged hourly or flat rates. Remember, these lawyers are not paid with lost cases, so you can begin to realize why the lawyer prices fees more highly for won cases.

Average Attorney Fees Chart

To wrap up our findings about the average lawyer fees available, here is a simple guide. Remember, these are averages. Your case could be lower or higher depending on the details. This is only a starting point for those wondering, “How much does a lawyer cost?”

Average Attorney Fees Chart

Type Of Legal Fees

Average Cost Of A Lawyer

Flat Fees

$200 – $600

Hourly Rates

$200 – $520 per hour



Contingency Fees

33% of settlement

Table: Attorney fees and average lawyer costs

While you are considering your attorney fees, remember there could be a couple other fees that could pop up. These are not guaranteed, but ask your lawyer about them the first time you call to set up an appointment.

  • Consultation Fee: Some lawyers choose to charge legal fees for your first consultation. Many legal representatives offer this service for free. Others could charge hundreds of dollars. Ask before you show up to your appointment.
  • Referral Fee: If you visit a lawyer regarding an issue and they are unable to help you, they will often refer you to a different lawyer. In some cases, the first lawyer may receive a referral fee.
  • Retainer Fee: Think of a retainer fee the same way as you would a down payment on a house. You are telling your lawyer that you will use him or her and will be paying for their services. They can move on with confidence knowing that they will definitely be receiving legal fees for their work.

What Do Attorney Fees Go Toward?

Many people want to resist paying their legal fees because they feel they are just lining their lawyer’s pocket. While many attorneys do make a good living at approximately $114,970 a year, your lawyer fees go toward paying much more than the lawyer’s paycheck.

Attorney fees also go toward any of these legal fees. This is not a comprehensive list, but a good idea of what your lawyer might be paying for with his or her rates:

  • Filing fees
  • Expert witness fess
  • Court reporter fees
  • Sheriff’s office fees
  • Paralegals
  • Documents
  • Private investigation
  • All other staff (admin assistants, front desk, etc.)
  • Office overhead
  • Travel

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Options When You Cannot Afford Lawyer Fees

Most Americans look at these average lawyer fees with dread. The fact of the matter is that most of these legal fees feel out of reach for the average person. In fact, The Atlantic did a whole write-up on the phenomenon of having a legal system for the people – which the people cannot afford.

If you find yourself unable to pay these attorney fees while still needing legal help, check out these resources available to you:

  • Legal Aid: Legal Aid is a not-for-profit service that provides legal representation without legal fees. They offer civil, criminal, and juvenile services. Legal Aid is funded through both the government and private donations. Their website offers information on who is eligible for their free services.
  • Pro Bono: The American Bar Association (ABA) has a helpful directory of pro bono services offered by state. These allow you access to lawyers without paying lawyer fees. The ABA encourages all of their lawyers to offer a certain amount of pro bono hours each year to those who need help.
  • Court-Appointed Help: Of course, if you are in need of a defense attorney and cannot pay the attorney fees, it is your right as a citizen of the United States to have a government-funded, court-appointed attorney take your case at no cost to you.

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Final Tips for Navigating Attorney Fees

Now we can answer the question, “How much does a lawyer cost?” and have a better idea of the average lawyer fees in 2016. But how does this apply to each person in his or her journey to finding and receiving legal help?

Here is how to navigate through all the information on legal fees above and have the best experience with your legal representation.

  • Call Around: With issues as large as legal matters, it is important to find the best option out there. Do not hesitate to call multiple lawyers in your area to determine cost/benefit for each.
  • Get Your Attorneys Fees In Writing: None of the common methods of paying legal fees are necessarily right or wrong. You will have to decide with your lawyer what makes the most sense. Once you do, get the specifics in writing. Clarify anything you do not understand before signing.
  • Remember That Cheaper Is Not Always Better: Saving money is a nice thing to do on your groceries, but not always on average attorney fees. When it comes to major issues like child custody or prison time, you want to ensure you have the best. Choosing a bad lawyer simply because they had low lawyer fees can end up costing you in the long run.

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