Hourly Fees

The most common form of charging legal clients is through an hourly rate. Most attorneys charge a rate between $100 and $300 per hour. Top legal counsel, with a reputation for success in complex or highly visible cases, may charge more. Rates tend to be higher in major urban areas, and in matters requiring special legal expertise (e.g., admiralty, tax, patent law).

The majority of attorneys charge in tenth-of-an-hour increments (every six minutes, expressed as 0.10 hours)for hourly fees. Since one-tenth of an hour (or six minutes) is the least billable amount, attorneys routinely bill for one-tenth of an hour even if only one or two minutes were physically spent on the case, e.g., a quick email or voice mail message; reviewing and signing correspondence, etc. This is neither improper nor illegal. In actuality, an attorney has dropped his or her other work to concentrate on the present case, thinking about what should be done or how it should be done; therefore, the final correspondence or voice mail does not truly reflect the actual amount of minutes spent on the matter.

Hourly charges tend to add up quickly, especially when every tenth of an hour is included. Clients may wish to discuss with their attorneys several moneysaving measures, including discounted rates after a certain number of hours are worked in any month (the discounted rate applying to the excess hours). Clients may also wish to cap the total number of hours or fees charged. By the time most discovery is completed, both sides have a better idea of what the case is worth, and whether it is worth taking to trial. A client may request that the attorney try to settle the lawsuit once legal fees reach a certain amount. Even if the settlement amount is less than desired, it may be the wiser choice if additional legal fees and costs of trial would eat up the difference in dollar amount anyway.

Clients can also negotiate prior approval of major legal maneuvers, although deference to counsel’s opinion should be exercised. For example, to save money, an attorney may serve written interrogatories upon a witness rather than take his deposition before a court reporter. However, if the attorney wishes to spring a question upon the witness by surprise (and to which the witness must answer immediately, without preparation), a deposition may be a smarter tactic, even though it costs more. Most conscientious attorneys discuss the pros and cons of various legal maneuvers with their clients as preparation for trial nears.

A final cost-cutting measure is to pay the top hourly rate for the best trial attorney, but ask for a less experienced attorney in the law firm, at a lower hourly rate, to handle the more routine matters. This is often the practice regardless, but either way, should be clarified in advance.


Inside Hourly Fees