Lawyers’ fees

Even if you feel uncomfortable talking about money, it is something that you should talk about with your lawyer during your first meeting.

How lawyers set their fees

Lawyers and law firms have various ways of setting fees for different legal services. Lawyers may charge a set fee for a specific task. For example, a lawyer may charge a fixed amount to draw up your will or help you with the purchase of your home.

For some services, such as personal injury claims, a lawyer may charge a contingency fee, which means payment of the fee depends on a successful outcome. The contingency fee systems works well for people who lack the funds to take legal action. The lawyer receives a percentage of the award.

For other services, lawyers may track and bill the time spent working for you. This includes time spent answering your telephone calls, doing research, preparing documents, talking to the other side's lawyer, going to court and so on.

Different lawyers in a law firm often have different hourly rates. Senior lawyers charge more per hour than lawyers who are just starting out in practice. Sometimes, it makes sense to have a senior lawyer working for you, simply because he or she may be able to handle your legal issue more quickly – and therefore more economically – in the long run.

A lawyer's fee may also depend on how complicated your case is, the difficulties faced and the final outcome. Except when working for a set fee, your lawyer may not be able to predict exactly how much it will cost to handle your case. Many factors can affect the total cost of legal services, including the complexity of the issues, necessary research, difficulty in dealing with the opposing side or trying to reach an agreement or settlement, the need to go to court and unexpected problems.

Costs can change as your case progresses and it is wise to make sure that your lawyer understands your maximum price limit and how close your lawyer is to approaching that limit as the case develops. Talking about these issues, before the work begins, may save you a lot of money – and frustration.

Paying for legal services

Most lawyers will not begin working on your case until they have a retainer. A retainer is money you pay your lawyer at the beginning to cover some of the early costs of handling your case. The money will be use to pay for work done on your case and expenses (disbursements) made on your behalf.

Disbursements can be minor expenses such as photocopying, courier charges, postage and long distance calls. More significant expenses such as the fee for hiring an expert to work on some part of your case, the cost of getting copies of documents from court files, the cost of registering documents on the title of a property or the property purchase tax.

If your lawyer uses up the retainer, you may be asked to pay another to cover ongoing costs. In those cases, make sure your lawyer accounts for his or her previous expenditures by sending you a bill listing everything you paid for with your first retainer.

As your matter progresses, or when it is over, your lawyer will bill you for his or her services. The bill should give a description of the services and an accounting of expenses paid on your behalf.

Above all with lawyers’ fees, the best and safest bet is to get a written estimate and fee agreement. That helps avoid disputes later on. Don't be shy about asking questions:

1. Can I have an estimate of how much you'll charge to handle my case?

2. Could this estimate change?

3. Will you let me know if something happens that will increase the fee?

4. What am I paying for?

5. What are the fixed costs and what else could crop up?

6. How will I be charged for things like photocopying and long distance calls?

7. How and when will I be billed?

8. Can I pay by post-dated cheques or on my credit card?

Legal Aid

Nova Scotia Legal Aid provides legal aid to financially eligible applicants who have serious legal problems. To find the nearest office, visit www.nslegalaid.ca.

When lawyers and clients disagree on the fee

Discuss your bill with your lawyer if you don’t understand some of the items on it, if you want more information or if you need to make arrangements to pay by installments. If you disagree with the amount of your bill, the first step is to talk it over with your lawyer.

Go over the details and have your lawyer explain why a particular charge was made. If this does not bring a satisfactory resolution, you may have the legal account reviewed (the process is called ‘taxation’) by the Small Claims Court. For information on how to commence the taxation, see the Courts of Nova Scotia website.