There are generally two arrangements lawyers will make with their clients to cover legal fees: Flat fee agreements, and hourly agreements. There are a multitude of combinations, limited only by the lawyer’s imagination and a client’s agreement.
The hourly fee is easy: you pay for any time spent on your case. Most lawyers bill in increments of time: six minutes, twelve minutes, some even fifteen minutes. This is standard, but you need to understand how your lawyer bills: if you call or email with a quick question, will it cost you fifteen minutes of legal time, even if the lawyer spends two minutes responding? To some degree, you are stuck with the procedures the lawyer you like best uses, most lawyers will not change their minimum billing increments for one client. Flat fee agreements are trickier. A simple example is this: Say your lawyer’s hourly rate is $200 per hour, if the lawyer estimates your case will probably take them 100 hours, that would cost you $20,000 in legal time alone (don’t forget, expenses always cost additional). But most lawyers hate keeping track of their time as precisely as is necessary for hourly billing, and most clients prefer the certainty of some cap to their legal fees (suppose you anticipate your case will cost $10 or $20,000 and suddenly the cost is $40,000 – where do you get that extra money?). In the flat fee arrangement, the lawyer decides that for the benefit of being looser about tracking their time, and stress of wondering whether the client will pay as agreed, they will charge a flat fee of $15,000. This allows the lawyer to earn the money “up front” (Read: you should assume it is gone the moment you give the money to the lawyer, though you may have some recourses for return of a portion of it if you end your relationship early), and the client to have the reassurance of what their case will cost.
Some attorneys charge a separate “trial fee.” Although client’s often view the trial fee as just one more cost, it is really to the client’s benefit: if the lawyer earns the same amount of money whether they plead the case out (often taking significantly less time) or they try the case to a judge or jury (anywhere between a few hours and a few months), the lawyer has, at least subconsciously, a benefit to encourage the client to a plea deal. Most reputable defense lawyers genuinely enjoy trying cases, and will help their clients make the very best decision for the client regardless of the financial impact, but the trial fee avoids the issue entirely.
On top of legal fees, the lawyer’s time, there are also costs. Generally anything the lawyer has to pay for on your behalf you will be charged for: Postage, court costs, costs for discovery (what the police report packet sent to the defense is called), long distance or collect telephone calls, costs for investigators, experts, 911 tapes, etc. You are also generally charged for things like mileage for the lawyer to go to your court appearances or to visit the scene, photocopies (which can add up surprisingly quickly), and the assistance of paralegals or legal assistants. Although every client should review their bills for errors, it is rarely helpful for the attorney-client relationship to second guess your lawyer’s every expenditure.
The Bottom Line is that you need an attorney you trust and can work with to make some of the most important decisions you will ever face. You need an experienced partner who will fight for your rights, advance your agenda, and listen to you at every step of the process.