"So, what do your services cost?"
It's a simple question. It should deserve a simple answer. Of course, things are a bit more complicated than they should be. Attorney and counseling services are just that, services, and they are geared and fashioned to meet the specific needs of each and every client. Each and every client is unique and therefore it is very difficult to put a price tag on "generic" services that would have any real association to the costs of each, specific instance. The pricing out of lawyer services has always been an inexact science and no one yet has come up with a good and always fair way of doing it.
The best course of action for each client is a thorough, preliminary discussion with an attorney of the exact problem that they are having and what it may take to reach a satisfactory resolution. This can be done best only with direct, one on one consultation and whatever method is chosen for payment, this is the best way a competent attorney can approach taking on a client's issue with any hope of being fair. Preliminary discussions are highly recommended and depending on the complexity of the issue involved, may be able to be addressed in a free, half-hour initial meeting. If the problem is more complex the first meeting costs can be directly assessed and established before any contractual engagement is established or any legal work on the issue is begun.
That said, of course there has to be some way of estimating what a particular problem might cost to resolve. Of the myriad ways of approaching the issue, there are a few that are often used by most attorneys seeking to honestly answer the "What will it cost me?" question.
No matter what payment arrangement is made between client and attorney the terms of the arrangement will be set out in a written engagement agreement. This document specifically sets out the exact understanding of what will be done for what compensation. It assures the expectations of both sides and prevents future misunderstandings. The types of payment arrangement decided between the parties are set out in a properly negotiated Engagement Agreement.
For some types of service it is difficult to estimate ahead of time the amount of time it will take to resolve the issue. A good example of this situation is when taking a case to trial. There is no guarantee that a court case can be wrapped up quickly or that it will drag on interminably. There could be a quick settlement only weeks into the start or it could drag on through a long jury trial, then through appeal after appeal before finally being resolved in some final verdict. Then it could continue even after if there is a default in trying to collect on that judgment. An attorney that puts a set price on such a potential outcome is running the risk of grossly overcharging or cripplingly undercharging. Either would be bad for the client as well as the lawyer.
In these cases, when the amount of work involved cannot be easily determined ahead of time, it makes sense to charge an hourly fee and promptly and regularly bill the client during the course of the work, keeping them abreast of what is being done when and how much it has cost. This allows the client to avoid the potential of overspending for a result, but, brings up the possibility that the amount needed to be expended may exceed the worth of the result to or the capacity to pay of the client.
The actual hourly rate used is intended to be competitive in the marketplace but also reflective of the familiarity and expertise being brought to the issue. There can be many factors that alter the hourly rate depending again on the particular specifics of each client and each issue. Understanding this, I still recognize that some kind of "ballpark" figure would be helpful to potential clients considering seeking representation. Therefore, just for that kind of analysis, I offer my base hourly rate for work within my areas of practice at $200/hour.
Another way of paying for an attorney's work is appropriate when the amount of work required is a known quantity. In such cases it may be more easy to determine a set fee for that exact service. Note, that these fees must be, by their nature, explicitly defined as to exactly what you get for the payment. Anything outside of the written contractual agreement is not included. Such external, excluded costs would probably fall to the hourly rate such as stated above. Situations where a set fee might be more beneficial could be a drafting of an uncomplicated will. If, after the initial consultation, it could be determined that all that is needed is a simple will to satisfy the needs of the client then it would make sense to charge a set price for such a drafting. But it must be realized that the set cost would not include any additional legal expenses even if they are highly related to the original agreement. Making changes to the will, i.e. creating a codicil with additions or changing beneficiaries, would not be included. Nor would the costs of defending a challenged will. Such additional legal needs could not be easily anticipated and could not be fairly incorporated in a set fee.
There may be situations within the areas of my practice where it makes such sense to charge a set fee for a specifically defined legal need. When such issues arise the process will be to establish a contract that explicitly sets out exactly what will be done in exchange for the set fee. Each of these instances will be particular to the situation at hand, but, if a set fee can be determined in advance for a distinct need then that might be the best approach for that client at that time for that requirement. Again, any additional legal requirements would be handled outside of the set fee structure.
Another way of paying an attorney that is sometimes used is by the granting of a retainer. A retainer is given as a sum of money in advance of any work being done by the attorney. It is highly dependant upon the type of retainer given as to what is "purchased" for the money. There are two types of retainer available which are highly distinct, but, unfortunately both are often referred to using just the "retainer" term.
A General Retainer is a true retainer in that, the payment retains the lawyer. The payment guarantees that the lawyer will be available within the specified period for the specified purposes of the retainer. But a general retainer does not go to paying any of the costs of the future, guaranteed representation. Once representation is needed the costs of that representation are billed out according to one of the other payment assessment methods.
The general retainer pays for the availability of the attorney, not the services of the attorney. This is an important distinction.
A Special Retainer, on the other hand, is in essence an advanced payment for services not yet rendered, but, expected. The lawyers fees and costs are paid from this advanced payment as they are incurred. The client still retains control over the money until an agreed cost is encountered and any residue of a special retainer after the close of the issue must be returned to the client.
A special retainer is often used when a client wants to set a limit on the total out of pocket cost of a representational arrangement. It is also used to assure an attorney that sufficient funds are available to pay the expected costs when a client's funds are less than certain.
Again, the properly established engagement agreement between the client and attorney sets out exactly what kind of retainer is being entered into and the terms and time frames involved.
There are other options for payment arrangements (e.g. commissions) but the above are the more commonly applicable. As in most of the dealings with your attorney, the specifics required by the representation desired will be the main determinant as to which process is best suited to the needs. Every client situation is unique and a preliminary discussion is the best place to discuss options specific to that instance.