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Like nearly all legal questions, trying to predict a lawyer's hourly rate will lead to one accurate answer: it depends. Factors like the type of case, the lawyer's experience, and even where you live will all come into play. Is a friend of a friend doing you a favor? Or are you going to a big firm? Are you paying for an associate's time, or a partner's?
While a variety of factors can create a wide range of hourly rates from attorneys, there are some general principles that can help you figure it out. Here's what to expect:
Hourly, Flat, or Contingent?
The first thing to know is that not all attorney fees are calculated hourly, and even some that are may not be due if you don't win your case. Some attorneys will charge a flat rate for consultation, representation, or document filing. Some standardized legal processes like drafting a will, filing an immigration application, and even simple criminal cases like DUIs can often come with a fixed fee, which is set and paid regardless of how long it took the attorney to do the work.
And there are other types of cases, generally personal injury cases, that attorneys will take on a contingency fee basis. This generally means that the attorney's fees are only paid if you win your case and are a percentage of the amount won. (You may still have to pay for expenses.) The percentage is generally one third of the award, but some attorneys may offer a sliding scale fee arrangement and some courts may cap what an attorney can receive.
Lawyer by the Hour
If your attorney does charge an hourly rate, the rate will depend on their level of experience and the complexity of your case. In 2013, the ABA reported the average hourly billing rate for partners at the biggest law firms was $727, while associates at most firms billed $370 an hour. A 2014 survey of consumer law attorneys (those dealing with bankruptcy, consumer banking, and consumer protection) billed an average hourly rate of $361.
Again, these are only examples of average fees, and what your lawyer charges will vary. Apple was billing its patent attorneys at a whopping $1,200 per hour, while our Strategist blog estimated that a solo practitioner could make $80,000 a year charging a $187 hourly rate. If all of this sounds distressingly expensive to you, there are some attorneys that will take cases on a pro bono basis.
If you need legal assistance, you should know that while attorneys may be expensive, not hiring a lawyer could end up costing your more and you can find an experienced attorney that fits your budget.