No. There are several types of fee arrangements, and most of them must be put in writing.
If the fee arrangement is for a contingency fee — which means the attorney will get a percentage of the settlement if you win the case — the agreement must be in writing. It must include, among other things, the agreed-upon percentage.
With non-contingency arrangements, the fee agreement must include the lawyer’s hourly rate and other standard rates, fees and charges that would apply to your case. It also must explain the general nature of the services that the lawyer will provide for you.
Sometimes it is impossible for a lawyer to know exactly how much time your case will take. You can, however, ask the lawyer to include an estimate of the time and costs in a written fee agreement or letter. But remember that many unexpected factors could drive up the cost. For example, your case might involve a cross complaint. This means that the person you are suing is also suing you. A cross complaint could affect the type and amount of the lawyer’s fee.
Apart from any fee you may pay for your first meeting with a lawyer, you probably will be charged either a fixed, hourly, retainer, contingency or statutory fee.
Fixed fee. This type of fee, sometimes called a standard fee, is commonly used in routine legal matters. For example, a lawyer may charge all clients the same amount to draw up a simple will or handle an uncontested divorce. Legal clinics often use this kind of fee arrangement. Before agreeing to a fixed fee, find out what it does and does not include and if any other charges may be added to the bill.
Hourly fee. Some lawyers charge by the hour, and the amount can vary from lawyer to lawyer. Ask the lawyer to estimate the amount of time your case will take. Suppose you contact three lawyers, and one charges more per hour than the others. You will need to decide whether this lawyer has the skills or experience that could bring your case to a faster solution. Remember that circumstances may change. Your case may take longer to handle than the lawyer initially expected.
Retainer fee. This kind of fee can mean different things to different people. Make sure you understand your particular fee agreement.
A retainer fee can be used to guarantee that the lawyer will be available to take a particular case. This could mean that the lawyer would have to turn down other cases in order to remain available. With this kind of retainer fee agreement, the client would be billed additionally for the legal work that is done. If the fee agreement is a true non-refundable retainer agreement, you may not be able to get your money back — even if the lawyer does not handle your case or complete the work.
A retainer fee also can mean that the lawyer is “on call” to handle the client’s legal problems over a period of time. Certain kinds of legal work might be covered by the retainer fee while other legal services would be billed separately to the client.
In addition, a retainer fee sometimes is considered a “down payment” on any legal services that the client will need. This means that the legal fees will be subtracted from the retainer until the retainer is used up. The lawyer would then bill you for any additional time spent on your case or ask you to replace the retainer.
Contingency fee. This kind of fee is often used in accident, personal injury or other types of cases in which someone is being sued for money. It means that you will pay the lawyer a certain percentage of the money you receive if you win the case or settle the matter out of court. If you lose, the lawyer does not receive a fee. Either way, though, you will have to pay the court costs and certain other expenses. Depending on the circumstances, these charges could be quite high. Ask the lawyer for an estimate of such costs. In some cases, the lawyer may pay some of these costs for you when they are due using money that you receive from the case.
If you agree to a contingency fee, make sure the written fee agreement spells out the lawyer’s percentage and whether his or her share will be figured before or after other costs are deducted. This can make a big difference. Suppose, for example, you were awarded $20,000 in a personal injury case and your lawyer was entitled to 40 percent. Court costs and other expenses amount to $2,000. If your lawyer’s share is figured after the $2,000 is deducted, the lawyer will receive 40 percent of $18,000 — or $7,200. You will receive $10,800. But if the lawyer’s share is figured in before costs are deducted, the lawyer will get 40 percent of $20,000 — or $8,000. After the $2,000 in costs is deducted from the remaining amount, you will get $10,000.
Contingency fee agreements must state, among other things, whether you will be required to pay the lawyer for related matters (matters not specifically covered in the written fee agreement) that might come up as a result of your case. In most cases, the agreement also must note that the attorney’s fee is negotiable between the attorney and the client — not set by any legal statute or law.
Statutory fee. The cost of some probate and other legal work is set by statute or law. For certain other legal problems, the court either sets or must approve the fee you will pay.
from the California State Bar