Hiring a Lawyer: What Flat Fees, Hourly Fees and Retainer Billing Could Mean For Your Life and Family

By Tonya Sayers, Esq.

Jan 01
Flat fee vs retainer

Trying to find the right lawyer to help with legal matters, especially if you are under the gun in a crisis situation, but even if you aren’t, can often feel like navigating uncharted waters. You want to find an attorney you like who will understand your family’s needs, but you also have to consider the cost of the attorney you’re hiring, and whether they can meet your immediate needs and be there for you in the long term. 

Depending on the type of legal work you need handled, whether it’s a high-conflict litigation matter, a one-off transactional matter, or ongoing strategic support, the options can be confusing to say the least. Maybe you’ve even considered a legal insurance plan or a pre-paid legal program. While the idea of legal insurance is fantastic, the execution is often lacking. 

In this blog, we’ll explore your options for hiring a lawyer just by looking at the legal billing models. In future articles, we’ll consider other factors, such as the benefits of consistent relationships, strategic guidance, and proactive risk prevention. In addition, for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on proactive estate planning, and touch on some of the other more reactive situations, such as crisis planning to support an elder who needs immediate nursing care or a high-conflict divorce or business break-up.

The Pitfalls and Costs of Hourly Billing

Hourly billing, tracked and invoiced in 6-minute increments, was the standard legal billing model for generations. If you’ve ever hired a lawyer billing by the hour, you probably experienced the reality where you really didn’t want to share too much with that lawyer, and wanted to keep your conversations as concise as possible, always tracking whether the conversation strayed into anything personal and perhaps wondering “am I getting billed for this?”

As a result, when hiring an attorney who bills by the hour, you’ll likely find yourself hesitant to contact your attorney with questions or additional pieces of information because you don’t want to incur extra costs or get a surprise bill in the mail. This creates a barrier to open communication with your lawyer and can keep you from getting the legal support you truly need.

Or, you may not even think about how your lawyer is billing, and after a quick phone call to your lawyer here and an email to them there, you could be caught off guard by how quickly those 6-minute increments add up to substantial invoices you weren’t planning on. This can harm your relationship with your lawyer, make it challenging to budget for legal services effectively, and can leave you feeling stressed about your legal bills instead of focusing on the reason that brought you to the lawyer in the first place.

Complex cases or unforeseen complications can inflate your bill even more by prolonging the time your lawyer is needed to complete the work. Even without a complex case, hourly billing may unintentionally skew your lawyer's incentives. After all, a longer legal process means more billable hours for them. If you’re wondering if this is the case with your lawyer, it negatively impacts your sense of trust in your relationship with them.

Hourly rates for lawyers can be as low as $125 per hour, and as high as $1000 or more per hour. In some big firms, they even get as high as $2000 per hour now. The general range seems to be $250-$650 per hour, depending on the type of matter.

Because hourly billing comes with so many risks to the relationship with your lawyer and your bank account, whenever possible, we recommend that you work with a lawyer who is experienced enough in the type of matter they are handling for you that they are able to quote you a flat fee for a specific outcome related to the work you need handled.

The Advantages of Flat Fees

Choosing a lawyer who charges flat fees flips the script, offering a straightforward and transparent approach to legal billing. With flat fees, you know exactly what you'll pay from the outset, and what you’ll be delivered in return. As we say here in our office: everything is billed on a flat-fee basis, agreed to in advance, so there are no surprises. This transparency eliminates the stress of unexpected costs and allows you to plan for legal expenses more effectively.

Flat fees give you and your lawyer room to speak freely about your needs without feeling as if you need to watch the clock or wonder if you’ve strayed too far afield in your conversation and connection. This means you can ask questions without worry, and leave it to your lawyer to set boundaries around whether any of the additions you may want would increase the fee for the services you need.

The way we see this work in our office when we are focusing on your estate planning matters is that we’ve invested considerable time in coming up with a flat fee billing structure that’s based around the outcomes you desire, rather than the specific documents you need, and that is flexible to change and grow with you over time.

For example, you may begin with a plan that is focused on keeping your kids in the care of people you know, love, and trust but doesn’t fully avoid the court process. Later, you might upgrade to a more comprehensive plan that focuses more on asset protection. The critical aspect here is that your fee is tied to the outcomes you desire, not the hours it takes or the documents we create.

When an attorney charges a fee for their services that is based on the outcome you desire, you know you’re getting a comprehensive package, not just one or two documents or a set of hours that won’t actually deliver for you and your family at the end of the day.

Keeping The Focus On You

As your dedicated Personal Family Lawyer® firm, we specialize in providing comprehensive estate planning with a focus on our client relationships. That means charging a reasonable flat fee for a comprehensive plan where we can take the time to get to know you, your family, and your needs on an intimate level and tailor your fee to the outcomes you desire.

Plus, we understand that planning for death and incapacity can be a lot to think about, and we want to give you the mental and emotional space to consider your estate planning options without the anxiety or distraction of a bill that changes every month. We want our time spent together to be entirely focused on you and your needs. 

If you’re ready to create an estate plan for the people you love that will serve and protect them for years to come, we invite you to reach out.

Schedule a complimentary discovery call with us to get started.

This article is a service of a Personal Family Lawyer® Firm. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session™.

The content is sourced from Personal Family Lawyer® for use by Personal Family Lawyer® firms, a source believed to be providing accurate information. This material was created for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as ERISA, tax, legal, or investment advice. If you are seeking legal advice specific to your needs, such advice services must be obtained on your own separate from this educational material.

Proper estate planning can keep your family out of conflict, out of court, and out of the public eye. If you’re ready to create a comprehensive estate plan, contact us to schedule your Planning Session. Even if you already have a plan in place, we will review it and help you bring it up to date to avoid heartache for your family. Schedule online today.