The standard contingency fee for an attorney on the surface runs about 33 percent, meaning one-third of any money won in a civil case goes to the law firm.
But contingency fees can vary and the way expenses are handled can alter how much money ends up in your pocket.
Here are a few issue that you should be aware of:
- If you’re just starting to look for a lawyer, be sure that you’re even involved in an area of law that allows for contingency fees. These are most common in personal injury situations and can also apply in proceedings between a creditor and debtor. But if you’re looking for a divorce lawyer or someone to handle a bankruptcy, be prepared to pay a standard hourly rate.
- When you do sign on with a personal injury attorney, make sure you know how expenses are being handled. Your case may require expert witnesses. It will certainly require standard office expenses—photocopying, documents, etc. Most of the time the firm absorbs these costs and then recoups them at settlement—in addition to the contingency fee. There can also be agreements where the client is responsible for these expenses—regardless of whether you win or lose.
- It’s not uncommon for that 33 percent figure to range in a broad window of 25-40 percent. The size of a potential settlement can impact this. If there’s a lot of money on the table, the firm may settle for a lower cut. In smaller cases, a lawyer needs a higher percentage to make it worth their time.
From the perspective of clients, contingency fee agreements can often seem unfair. The most successful personal injury lawyers typically take cases where the work-to-reward ratio works heavily in their favor and you may feel they’re getting more than they deserve.
But that’s assuming you win.
If you lose, you pay nothing—and the attorney has to make up their losses on a future case.
You can choose alternate ways to finance your case—a lawsuit loan, for example.
But the fundamental dynamic won’t change. A high contingency fee is the cost the client pays to shift the risk.