The purpose of this pamphlet is to introduce you to basic ideas about hiring a lawyer, working effectively and efficiently with a lawyer, and understanding how you will be charged for the legal services you receive from your layer. The best way to get answers to your specific questions about lawyers and the law is to contact a lawyer of your choice and take advantage of his or her skills and experience.
When should you see a lawyer?
The best time to go to your lawyer is before you are in legal difficulty. A lawyer may help you save money and trouble if you consult with him or her before you sign papers or take other action which might seriously alter your legal position.
You should consult your lawyer when:
- You are arrested or charged with a crime.
- Your are about to enter into a verbal or written contract which has major financial consequences or involves unusual legal questions;
- You are involved in an accident involving injury to persons or damage to property;
- You are seeking to collect money owed you, or someone else is seeking to collect from you and there is some question about whether, or how much, you owe;
- You need an opinion as to the title to real estate;
- You have a taxation problem concerning a substantial amount;
- You are buying or selling real estate;
- You want to plan your estate and make a will or set up a trust;
- You are organizing, dissolving, buying or selling a business;
- You are involved in the settlement of an estate;
- You desire to make or terminate a lease;
- You are involved in a family situation such as adoption, divorce, etc.;
- You are served with legal papers;
- You are not sure as to your legal position on any given matter.
You should insure that, as a client, you do not bring frivolous claims to your attorney and expect him or her to litigate for you. Under Kansas law, you and your attorney may be subject to financial sanctions if the judge believes that you filed a lawsuit improperly, or continued with a defense that was not supported by facts or offered in good faith.
What if you've been charged with a crime?
Our state and federal constitutions guarantee everyone, even the guilty, a fair hearing and due process of law. That means attorneys on both sides must insure that the facts in a criminal proceeding are accurate, and the person must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes, a person may have committed a crime, but he or she is charged with a different offense with heavier penalties than what was committed. It is the attorney's responsibility to insure that such unfairness is revealed in court or is corrected.
What will happen during my first visit with my lawyer?
Explain to the lawyer why you have made the appointment. After you have explained your problem, the lawyer will point out any laws or legal procedures that will be involved in handling the matter for you. You should ask a lawyer any questions you may have about your problem or the law relating to it.
During the first visit you should discuss with your lawyer what the fees will be. Many times the exact amount cannot be determined in advance, but the lawyer will at lease explain to you how he or she plans to compute your fee, and may be able to give you an estimate of what the charges will be. You should ask that the fee arrangements be put into an engagement letter to you so that there will be no questions about the fees at some later time. Be sure to find out if the time spent in you initial consultation will be billed to you.
If your lawyer requests a deposit, sometimes called a "retainer" or "advance", ask whether any part of it will be refunded to you if you do not proceed. The amount of the retainer will vary, but it should be a fair amount to cover the initial work and disbursements. On occasion, lawyers may refund an advance or retainer after reimbursing themselves for services actually performed, although traditionally, a "retainer" is not considered refundable.
If at some later time you have a question regarding your lawyer's bill, ask him or her to explain the charges. Most lawyers today maintain detailed records of the time they spend working for each client. This usually serves as a basis for their fees. Questions and problems concerning fees can occur because you may be unaware of the extent of the work a lawyer has actually done. Reaching an early agreement as to fees will lessen the chances of any future misunderstanding.
How a lawyer computes fees
Lawyers often make no charge or only a small charge for a first visit. After the lawyer is aware of your legal needs, you and the lawyer can discuss whether the lawyer will handle your case and how you will be charged for the legal services you are provided. Many of the services provided by your attorney are performed when you are not present. Sometimes documents are prepared for you or advice is given to you following many hours of work done by the attorney in your absence. The best way to understand legal fees is to discuss them thoroughly with your lawyer at the time of your first meeting.
An attorney will charge you in one of three ways
- On a flat fee basis, for handling a particular type of matter.
- On the basis of a percentage of recovery, which is called a contingent fee arrangement.
- On an hourly basis.
Other factors which may enter into an attorney's fees are as follows:
- The nature of the problem or matter. A simple problem involving well-established procedures which are basically routine will cost less than a complex matter that raises questions in a specialized field of law.
- The experience, skill, and reputation of the lawyer. A lawyer with more experience and ability, who is know to have special skill in limited areas of the law, may charge more per hour than someone not as well known. This may not necessarily result in higher overall fees, if the lawyer can perform the services more efficiently than a less experienced lawyer.
- Business expenses and office costs, such as secretaries, rent, telephone, postage, office supplies, law books and legal publications, are indispensable to your lawyer's effective practice of law. Fees take into account the fact that the cost of these items must be paid by the lawyer.
- Benefits derived from services rendered. The responsibility assumed by the lawyer and the results obtained may be important factors in determining the fees.
- Legal assistants. Certain routine legal matters may be handled by a legal assistant experienced in an area of the law but who is not a lawyer. You may be charged for work done by such a legal assistant.
- Other factors. Ethical rules allow for a number of other factors to be considered in determining reasonable attorney's fees. These include preclusion of other employment by the lawyer, fees customarily charged by other lawyers, time limitations, prior relationship with the client, and whether the fee is fixed or contingent.
What are hourly charges?
Most lawyers establish a fixed hourly charge for their services. A lawyer's fee is computed by multiplying this fixed hourly charge by the number of hours a lawyer spent working for you. The lawyer then may add direct out of-pocket expenses such as court filing costs, long distance telephone charges, transportation costs, photocopy charges, costs of experts engaged in other professional fields, and the like. When retaining an attorney on this basis, you may wish to ask for an estimate of the charges for the requested services, and to request an explanation of what complications might arise and what effect the complications will have on your fee.
Hourly rates of lawyers will depend upon the lawyer's experience and the demand for his or her services. Remember that only part of the hourly fee is actually for the lawyer's services, much of the fee goes to pay his or her business expenses as described above.
What is a contingent fee?
In some types of personal injury and damage cases, an attorney may agree to a contingent fee arrangement. In this situation the fee is paid for the attorney's services if, and only if, there is some financial recovery. If there is none, the attorney is not entitled to collect any fee, but the client must pay court costs and other expenses directly related to the case. Contingent fees will usually be a percentage of the recovery. If you have a matter for which such an arrangement might be appropriate, your lawyer will discuss the possibility with you when you talk about the fees during your first visit. Contingent fees will usually be substantially more than fees based on hourly rates yet are often attractive to the client because the fee is not payable unless there is a recovery. Contingent fee arrangements should be in writing.
How to hold down legal costs?
A few suggestions to help reduce the cost of legal services are:
- Before meeting with your lawyer, collect all letters, documents and information you think might be helpful, and bring them with you to the initial consultation.
- When talking to your lawyer, try to present an overall view of your position. Share all of your information, even if it is not in your favor.
- Avoid frequent telephone calls or visits to find out how things are going, as you will likely be charged for each. You may be able to avoid such expenses by agreeing with your layer initially that your lawyer will keep you advised of progress.
When will I have to pay?
The time for payment of your lawyer's fees depends on the type of service and the fee arrangements. Your lawyer may require payment of a retainer prior to beginning work, as indicated above. If you are not sure that you will be able to pay promptly, talk it over with your lawyer.
After the first payment, the remaining fees may be due periodically upon receipt of billing from the lawyer, or upon completion of the work.
Can I trust my lawyer with a confidential matter?
Your lawyer's professional relationship with you is quite similar to your relationship with a doctor or a clergyman. Without your consent, your attorney cannot reveal anything that you say as part of that relationship, unless ordered by the Court, or under other limited and exceptional circumstances.
If you have a complaint with your lawyer
If you feel that a grievance may be the result of inadequate communication, lack of sufficient agreement, or some misunderstanding, the problem may best be solved by a frank talk with the lawyer. Explain your dissatisfaction and ask for a full accounting of the matter involved. Such a discussion can often eliminate the problem or lead to a satisfactory solution.
A formal complaint of unprofessional conduct against a lawyer is a serious matter. If you believe your complaint is well-founded, write the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, 701 Jackson Street, First Floor, Topeka, KS 66603.
This pamphlet is based on Kansas law and is published to provide general public information, not specific legal advice. The facts involved in a specific case determine the application of the law.