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Lawyers charge for their services in one of three different ways: flat rate, hourly rate, and contingent fee. A flat rate is used usually when the work is relatively routine and the lawyer knows in advance approximately how long it will take her to do the job. Drawing a will or doing a real estate closing are examples of legal work that is often paid a flat rate. The rate itself may be based on a percentage of the worth of the matter—say, 1 percent of a home’s selling price.
Lawyers generally charge by the hour for courtroom time and for ongoing representation in commercial matters. Virtually every sizable law firm bills its clients by hourly rates, which in large cities can range from $300 for an associate’s time to $500 and more for a senior partner’s time.
A contingent fee is one that is paid only if the lawyer wins—that is, it is contingent, or depends upon, the success of the case. This type of fee arrangement is used most often in personal injury cases (e.g., automobile accidents, products liability, and professional malpractice). Although used quite often, the contingent fee is controversial. Trial lawyers justify it by pointing to the high cost of preparing for such lawsuits. A typical automobile accident case can cost at least ten thousand dollars to prepare, and a complicated products-liability case can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Few people have that kind of money or would be willing to spend it on the chance that they might win a lawsuit. Corporate and professional defendants complain that the contingent fee gives lawyers a license to go big game hunting, or to file suits against those with deep pockets in the hopes of forcing them to settle.
Trial lawyers respond that the contingent fee arrangement forces them to screen cases and weed out cases that are weak, because it is not worth their time to spend the hundreds of hours necessary on such cases if their chances of winning are slim or nonexistent.
In England and in many other countries, the losing party must pay the legal expenses of the winning party, including attorneys’ fees. That is not the general rule in this country. Here, each party must pay most of its own costs, including (and especially) the fees of lawyers. (Certain relatively minor costs, such as filing fees for various documents required in court, are chargeable to the losing side, if the judge decides it.) This type of fee structure is known as the American rule (in contrast to the British rule).
There are two types of exceptions to the American rule. By statute, Congress and the state legislatures have provided that the winning party in particular classes of cases may recover its full legal costs from the loser—for example, the federal antitrust laws so provide and so does the federal Equal Access to Justice Act. The other exception applies to litigants who either initiate lawsuits in bad faith, with no expectation of winning, or who defend them in bad faith, in order to cause the plaintiff great expense. Under these circumstances, a court has the discretion to award attorneys’ fees to the winner. But this rule is not infinitely flexible, and courts do not have complete freedom to award attorneys’ fees in any amount, but only "reasonable" attorney's fees.
Litigation is expensive. Getting a lawyer can be costly, unless you get a lawyer on a contingent fee. Not all legal systems allow contingent fees. In many legal systems, the loser pays attorneys’ fees for both parties.