Most attorneys bill on an hourly basis. There are some definite pros and cons to this system, but the reason that we use it is because it protects everyone. We usually work on a retainer agreement—a legal contract that describes our responsibility to you, and your responsibility to us. It outlines all the terms of how we’ll work together, including what kind of specific matter we’re representing you in, how our office works, and what the hourly rates are of everyone who will work on your case.
If you have a question about how work on your case will be billed, you should always look at your retainer agreement first. Of course, you should have read your retainer agreement before you signed it (because it’s a legal contract, just like your separation agreement, and should be taken seriously!), but it’s always possible that something may have escaped your notice early on. How are phone calls billed? What’s the fee for opening a file? Does your paralegal have an hourly rate? How many attorneys will be working on your case? These are all questions that your retainer agreement will answer.
Your retainer agreement will also specify the amount of money you must pay in order to “retain” your attorney on your case. This number is not a flat fee; it is more like a security deposit. When you pay a retainer, a certain amount of money is placed in an escrow account with your name on it. As your attorney does work on your case, she will bill (in increments of an hour) against that amount. The money only transfers to the attorney after it is earned; until then, it is still your money. At the end of your case, the remaining balance is refunded to you (so long as you didn’t sign an agreement that specified that the retainer is non-refundable).
But what if I want to know exactly what my case will cost?
There are very few attorneys who offer flat fee billing. The reason is that it is often very difficult to determine, at the beginning, exactly how much a case will cost. There is a lot of risk involved on both sides. What if the attorney under-estimates, and the case goes on for years, with no possibility of recovering for the time and effort actually spent? On the other hand, what if the client overpays, and the case settles in a matter of hours or days?
Still, there is something to be said for knowing, in advance, exactly how much your case will cost you, and lots of clients ask for flat fees. In response to this demand, we’ve started experimenting with flat fee billing. Only one attorney, Kristen Hofheimer, is billing this way, so if you’re interested in this, you’d have to schedule an appointment with her specifically.
Is flat fee billing really better?
It’s hard to know, before litigation begins, exactly how long and protracted your case is going to be. This is a good system for a lot of reasons. For one thing, you only pay for work that is actually done on your case. In a flat fee system, you know exactly what it’ll cost you—regardless of how many times you call or email your attorney, or how difficult your husband is throughout the process.
There are some advantages to traditional retainer billing, though, too. For one thing, it’s nice to know that what you’re paying for is work that was actually done. You also don’t have to pay as much to get started.
Ultimately, most people will end up with an attorney who bills on a traditional retainer, mostly because that’s how most attorneys in our area operate.