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Contingency fee. Under this arrangement, the attorney's fee is based on a percentage of what you are awarded in the case.

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If you lose the case, the attorney does not get a fee, although you will still have to pay expenses. The contingency fee percentage varies and some lawyers offer a sliding scale based on how far along the case is when it is settled. A one-third fee is common. A contingency fee is usually found in personal injury cases, accidental claims, property damage cases, or other cases where a large amount of money is involved.

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Referral fee. On occasion, an attorney who has accepted your case may refer you to another attorney who specializes in the area you need. Sometimes the first attorney will ask for a portion of the total fee you pay for the case. This "referral fee" may be prohibited under state codes of professional responsibility unless certain rules are followed. The rules usually include a requirement that client fees be split only if each attorney does some work, the client knows about the arrangement, and the total fee is reasonable.

It is important to remember that a lawyer's fees are often negotiable. Your lawyer is unlikely to invite you to bargain over fees, and you may not want to bring the subject up. Keep in mind, however, that there are some situations in which attorneys are more likely to consider a lower fee. If your case is interesting, unique, or extremely lucrative, an attorney may be willing to negotiate.

If the firm is actively seeking more work or is new to your locality, it may handle a case for less as a way to build its caseload. There are two general situations in which you may wish to raise the issue of lower fees. First, if your case has the possibility of significant attorney's fees, you are in a stronger position if you are willing to shop around and to negotiate.

It's wise to negotiate, for example, in personal injury cases. Most lawyers will propose a standard contingency fee for one-third of any damages that they win for you, nothing if they lose. Tip: The contingency fee is designed to cover the risk the lawyer is taking; yet some experts estimate that at least one out of every five contingency fee cases involves virtually no risk. It makes sense to sit down with several different lawyers before choosing one.

Ask each to assess the merits of the case and the likelihood that you will receive money if you are successful. The consultations will be free and you will come away with a more realistic sense of what fee arrangements you should agree to. Generally, the higher the likelihood of success in a case, the lower the contingency percentage you may be able to negotiate. You may be able to negotiate other arrangements that will save you money, including flat fees instead of hourly charges, hourly rates up to a prearranged maximum for the entire project, and fees based partly on the outcome.

When you need a simple transaction like a will, a real estate closing, or a power of attorney, you can comparison shop. Contracting for legal services is like any other consumer transaction in that the prices and the work product vary. Call several attorneys and compare their answers to the questions listed above.

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  8. Only after you get a sense of the range of fees will you be able to determine which rate and which attorney best suit you and your budget. A written agreement specifying the fee arrangement and the work involved is the best way of assuring clear communication between you and your attorney about the total cost of the case. Tip: In some cases, it may save hundreds of dollars if you ask a lawyer to bill at 6-minute instead of minute intervals. For example, if a lawyer's minimum billing unit is 15 minutes, each 5-minute phone call will be billed at one-fourth of the hourly rate.

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    At 6-minute phone intervals, a 5-minute phone call costs just one-tenth of the hourly rate. Most legal work is relatively routine. It often has little to do with complex legal theory or analysis, and much more to do with knowing which form to fill out and which county clerk will process it most quickly. Smaller firms, attorneys charging lower rates, and less experienced attorneys are often well suited for the broad range of legal work needed by many consumers. Recently graduated attorneys may offer to work for a somewhat lower price to compensate for the extra risk and time involved in becoming familiar with the specific area of law.

    Tip: Be wary of big law firms where you may get the impression that the young associate who has been assigned to your case at a lower rate is being supervised closely by the senior partners listed in the firm name. The associate may take three or four times as long as an experienced lawyer to draft the necessary papers.

    You might want to meet with the associate and the supervising partner before work begins to ascertain who is going to do what and to get an estimate as to how much the work should cost. Such a meeting may prevent the firm from charging you for an associate's on-the-job training. Discuss ways that you can help the attorney on the case. For example, if the attorney needs copies of birth certificates or other records, you can write the letter to request them and save your attorney the time needed to dictate and process the letter.

    Splitting the work with an attorney also can cut the cost of writing a will or health-care power of attorney or setting up a trust. You can draft the document, using a standard form as a guide, and then present it to your lawyer for reviewing and finalizing the work.

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    Make sure that your attorney is willing to do this kind of work and discuss the fee if major rewriting is needed. Some lawyers are open to negotiating a lower fee if you are only looking for their legal expertise to write a letter to the other side to settle.

    You may wish to hire the attorney for this type of limited assistance initially and follow up yourself. If you are unsuccessful, you may wish to retain the attorney to further pursue the case. If you want to represent yourself in court called "appearing pro se" , hire your attorney to act as a pro se coach who will review documents and letters that you prepare and sign.

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    The attorney may also help you prepare for a hearing in which you represent yourself. This might be appropriate when appearing in small claims court to enforce a lease or collect bills owed to you, for example. Not all attorneys will be comfortable in this role, but some, especially in smaller firms, may be interested in empowering consumers.

    You are likely to save money by choosing someone who has the knowledge and office systems set up to handle cases like yours cost-effectively. That attorney is also more likely to be knowledgeable about specific procedures relating to your case, expert witnesses in the area, and other attorney experts for consultation.

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    Note: A rapidly growing specialty in the legal profession is "Elder Law," which includes traditional areas of legal practice such as estate planning and probate, as well as public benefits such as Medicare and Social Security, and issues such as planning for long-term care placement and health-care decision-making. Some attorneys have begun identifying themselves as elder law specialists.

    Most of these do not specialize in all of the areas covered by the broad term elder law. Therefore, you should ask which areas an attorney handles. Come prepared with all of the necessary information and papers. Ask questions to make sure that you are providing everything the attorney needs. Think about your legal problem and gather the information your attorney will need.

    Write down the names, addresses, and phone numbers of other people involved in the case. Write down the important events or facts.

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    Bring any relevant papers such as contracts, letters, court notices, or leases. Keep copies of this information and provide it to your attorney. The more work you do to prepare, the less time your attorney needs to spend and charge you for finding the information. Your communications to your attorney are confidential.

    Pay close attention to the questions your attorney asks you and offer complete and honest answers. If you are not sure if a piece of information is relevant, ask your attorney. If your attorney knows all the facts as early as possible in the case, it will save time and money that might be spent later on further investigation or misdirected case development. You are the primary source of information about your case and your attorney will act based on the information you have provided.