Legal Costs

How Much Does it Cost to Get Legal Help?

In the U.S., lawyers can (and often do) charge just about whatever they want for their services. Most lawyers charge an hourly rate, which can be anywhere from zero (“pro bono”) to over $1000 per hour. But the most common rates are between $250-$500 per hour, generally unaffordable for most people.

Lawyers often require an upfront retainer payment, like $2000, which they will “spend down” as they work on your situation.

These hourly fees can add up quickly. It is becoming more common for lawyers to charge so called “alternative fee arrangements” other than hourly. These include flat fees and contingency fees (see below for more).

Why do lawyers charge so much?

There are many factors that go into determining a lawyer’s rate, most importantly, experience. And while you should consider these factors, at the end of the day, you can only afford what you can afford. While some lawyers are willing to negotiate their fees, many will almost never negotiate. So if you want to hire a lawyer at a reasonable rate, you may have to shop around quite a bit. Or try an alternative.

What will be my TOTAL legal cost?

What a legal consumer really wants to know is not just the hourly, but “How much is this going to cost me in total?” This is a good question, but hard to answer. Lawyers don’t like to answer it because it’s often hard to predict how many hours a situation will take. A more cynical reason is that they don’t want to scare you off with a large number. They should be able to at least give you a ballpark figure, but many won’t even do that. Because we are all about giving you the inside information, that’s what we will try to do here.

Some lawyers do charge flat fees, rather than hourly, which means you just pay that total price regardless of how long a project takes. For example, a lawyer may charge a total of $1,000 to form a corporation for a client, and the client would then pay that $1,000 regardless of whether the lawyer spent 30 minutes on it or 10 hours. This can be a benefit to both the lawyer and the client, as both have reasonable certainty about the total costs and there are less likely to be surprises.

Total legal cost varies significantly depending on the particular issue and how complex it is. How do you know how complex your question is? That’s difficult to know, as even seemingly simple questions can have implications you may not know about. So ultimately, you would need to ask a lawyer (or preferably more than one) to give you their assessment.

That said, here’s some ballpark numbers:

Expected Legal Costs for Various Types of Cases

Costs vary by complexity and area of law. Be sure to see our guide What Type of Lawyer Do I Need?

1. Simple legal questions: generally free

If you have a “simple” legal question, such as “Can my employer fire me for posting negative things about the company on social media?”, you should be able to find a general answer online (it’s probably on Law Soup!). In this case, the general answer is a simple “yes.”

Of course, there are always shades of grey, so even seemingly simple questions like these can be complicated based on the details of a particular situation. For example, if you do get fired based on a social media post, you may not have intended the post to be negative, but maybe it simply came out wrong. Or it may in fact be protected under union laws if the post was for the purpose of obtaining better working conditions.

If you wanted to know about these possible arguments you could make, you may need to hire a lawyer to review all the facts and apply the law to your situation. Which, generally, would NOT be free.

Or you may be able to get a lawyer for zero upfront costs, if the lawyer agrees to work “on contingency” (see below).

2. More complex questions: $250++

For legal issues that are very tricky or have never come up before, these may involve several hours of legal research, so at a minimum, probably $250, but could also be several thousand dollars.

3. Criminal defense for serious crimes (if you can’t afford a lawyer): FREE

Individuals who are accused of serious crimes and can’t afford a lawyer are entitled by law to free legal representation. The lawyers who represent low-income people in criminal court are called “public defenders,” which are appointed by the court. See our Guide to Rights for the Accused for more.

4. Criminal defense for serious crimes (if you can afford a lawyer): $3,500+

5. Criminal defense for less serious crimes: on average $1,000 – $2,000+

6. Injury cases (such as car accidents, slip and fall, etc), employee rights cases, debt collection cases, and others in which you could win some money: $0 upfront

In most of these types of cases in which you stand to gain a significant amount of money from someone you are suing (as opposed to where you are defending yourself to avoid paying money to someone who is suing you), lawyers will often take the case on “contingency.” This means your cost is essentially zero upfront, although you probably will be responsible for court costs such as filing fees, etc. Then if (and only if) you win in court or get a settlement, the lawyer will usually take around 1/3 (about 33%) of this amount.

7. Estate planning, including wills and/or trust: $500-$20,000+

8. Bankruptcy: $2,000-$5,000+

9. Divorce: $1,000-$100,000+

Simple, no-contest divorce can be about $1,000, but anything with custody issues will usually be at least $5,000.

10. Prenuptial/premarital agreement: $2000 – $5000

11. Forming LLC or corporation: $500-$2500+

12. Eviction, Disability, Government Benefits, and more (for Low Income people): FREE (If you can get it)

People with income of less than 125% of the federal poverty line generally may qualify for free legal services (aka “pro bono”). However, unfortunately even most people who qualify are turned away because the Legal Aid organizations don’t have enough resources.

13. Other types of cases: $1,000 to $1 million+

Obviously legal costs can vary significantly depending on the complexity of the issue and who is involved. And even if you prevail, it may or may not be worth it. One guy successfully fought off a lawsuit from Nissan car company, but it took over 8 years and cost $3 million!

For typical costs of other types of cases, see the particular issue in our Legal Guides.

Resources

See options for Getting Legal Help

See our guide What Type of Lawyer Do I Need?

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