Frequently Asked Questions

How are attorneys paid?

Estimating the cost of legal representation is an important consideration when hiring a a lawyer. It is good to have a frank and open conversation with your lawyer about money right from the start, so he or she understands your budget, and you have realistic expectations about how much his or her services will cost.

Many attorneys offer a menu of fee arrangements and payment methods, including payment by credit card, to accommodate the needs of their clients. Here are some examples of common fee structures:

Retainer Agreement

Many lawyers require an upfront fee for services called a “retainer.” The amount of a retainer could range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, often depending upon the complexity and scope of the matter you are hiring your attorney to resolve. The monies are held on account, and your attorney should provide you with a billing record as he/she deducts the cost of services from the retainer. If your matter is resolved before the retainer runs out, the remaining funds will be returned to you. If the matter will cost more than the initial retainer to resolve, your attorney may require another retainer, or in the alternative, may bill you for additional fees.

Another use of a retainer fee is when you pay an upfront amount to have your attorney standing by to provide legal advice or handle recurring matters.

Hourly Fee

Some attorneys simply charge an hourly fee for the time spent working on your case. Sometimes, a lawyer’s fee for time spent in court is higher than for time spent doing other tasks.

Flat Fee

A flat fee is a fixed amount you pay for legal services. This payment option is usually offered for a service that is simple and does not involve a dispute, for instance, a bankruptcy filing or uncontested divorce.

Consultation Fee

Many lawyers offer to meet with you the first time free of charge. This is an opportunity for you to interview the attorney and see if he or she is the right lawyer for you, and an opportunity for the lawyer to evaluate whether or not your case is one they would represent. However, some attorneys charge for an initial consultation and will expect payment at the time of the meeting. Be sure to ask if there is a consultation fee before you book an appointment.

Contingency Fees

Some attorneys agree to take a case “on contingency.” That means rather than being paid up front, they are willing to shoulder the cost of your case and get paid if you win an out-of-court settlement or in-court verdict. Contingency fees include the cost of your attorney’s time, time of staff members who worked on your case, and hard costs associated with your case, like copy and mailing costs, and court filing fees. If you lose your case, you will likely still be responsible for hard costs. Generally, attorneys who work on contingency are those who handle litigation matters against insurance companies or other large entities. Attorneys in Minnesota are prohibited from working on contingency in certain types of cases.

Will my attorney charge me for communication via email?

In many cases, the answer is yes. Email is an efficient way to communicate, and it often takes less time for your attorney to answer a brief question this way. However, email communications are still a function of your attorney’s representation and part of the official legal record. In some instances, he or she may spend significant time drafting an email. Your attorney may have a policy of not charging for reading and responding to a brief note. But keep in mind that all communications, even brief ones, are generally logged and billed. It is a good idea to ask ahead of time if you will be billed for short emails or phone calls.

How do I choose an attorney?

Identifying the right attorney is a very personal and important decision. Often, this person will be representing you in a matter that has great emotional, financial or other consequences. You will likely want to feel confident that the person you choose is both professionally qualified and also someone whose values are similar to your own. The research you do ahead of time will help you narrow down those lawyers in your area whom you feel are a good match. The Minnesota State Bar Association is another resource you can use to find out more about local attorneys and their professional standing.

How do I prepare for a consultation with a lawyer?

Good communication is vital to the successful outcome of your legal case. It begins with you and your ability to tell your lawyer exactly what is happening and precisely what you want to accomplish. The better prepared you are, the easier it will be for your attorney to get up to speed quickly and begin guiding you toward your goal.

Organize Your Thoughts

Consider preparing a brief outline or notes about your case that will help you stay on track and communicate the main points. Remember to be thorough, but succinct. Think about which details are most important. To make it simple, answer the five Ws: Who, What, Where, When and Why. Who is involved? What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Why are you seeking legal advice, or What outcome are you trying to obtain?

Bring Documents

Any documentation you have to support your claim will help your attorney make a quick evaluation your case.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask Questions

It’s smart to ask questions. In addition to some of the general questions we recommend asking when hiring a lawyer, make a list of questions you have that are specific to your case.

If your lawyer uses terms you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask him or her to explain. A good lawyer will want you understand their representation and your rights.

Take Notes

You will no doubt have a lot on your mind during your conversation with your lawyer, and you may have trouble remembering later what he or she said. It is a good idea to take notes so you can review and prepare any follow-up questions you have for your next meeting.

Read Before You Sign

Be sure to carefully read the fee agreement or other documents your attorney provides before you sign. It’s perfectly okay to take the documents home with you so you may have time to read them before making a commitment. If there is anything you don’t understand, ask your attorney to explain it again. It is better for everyone to be on the same page from the beginning, than for a misunderstanding to arise later.

Tell the Truth

In order for your attorney to help you, he or she must fully understand what is happening. Don’t be embarrassed about admitting where you may be at fault. If something is potentially detrimental to your case, it’s better they hear it from you in the beginning, so they can work with you to minimize the damage. Remember, your attorney is professionally obligated to honor strict rules of confidentiality.

Stay Calm and Focused

Many legal matters involve upsetting circumstances. It’s easy to get caught up in emotions and details that may make it hard for your attorney to understand how he or she can best help you. Your good preparation will help you stay calm and focused on the objective points of your case. It will also save you money, as many attorneys are paid hourly. The more organized you are, the less time your attorney will have to spend piecing together the facts, and the more efficiently he or she can get you to your goal.

What if I have a dispute with my attorney?

Most problems can be resolved with good communication. Let your lawyer know if you are dissatisfied with his or her representation for any reason. The problem may be a simple misunderstanding, or you may be able to negotiate a solution. If you decide to fire your attorney and hire someone else, you will likely still have to pay your lawyer for time already spent on your case. The lawyer must return your file.

If you believe your attorney is acting unethically or unlawfully, you may contact the Minnesota Attorneys Professional Responsibility Board at (651) 296-3952 or (800) 657-3601.

What is the difference between a civil and criminal case?

A civil case involves a dispute or lawsuit between private citizens, companies or organizations. A criminal matter involves an offense against the state and society as a whole, and is an action brought by the state. The same misconduct can lead to both civil and criminal actions.

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