What to expect when working with a California Licensed Attorney on your U.S. based legal matter?

U.S. Federal Law

What to Expect from Your California Licensed Attorney

You can expect your attorney to:

  • Act ethically and abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct and the California Business and Professions Code.
  • Represent you zealously and use all lawful and ethical means to present or defend your case.
  • Not reveal anything you tell them in confidence. There are several exceptions to this rule, for example, certain life-threatening situations.
  • Allow you to make the final decisions regarding how your case will be handled.
  • Exercise independent professional judgment on your behalf.
  • Keep you updated on your case.

What to Expect Regarding Fees and Billing

You and your lawyer should agree on what you will pay and which services will be provided.

By law, fee agreements with your lawyer MUST be in writing when the lawyer expects fees and costs for your case to total $1,000 or more.

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Here are key things to know about fees and billing:

How a lawyer decides what amount to charge

  • Lawyers consider various factors when setting their fees.
  • A lawyer who is well-known in a certain area of the law might charge more than someone who is not.
  • A lawyer also may consider the complexity of the case and the amount of time your matter could take.

How often your attorney will bill you for services

  • With the exception of contingency fee arrangements (see below), you can expect to be billed monthly by your attorney.

Types of fee arrangements

Attorneys use different types of fee arrangements.

These are the most common types of fee arrangements used by attorneys:

  • Fixed fee or standard fee.
    Commonly used for routine legal matters, such as preparing a simple will. 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, which will can vary among lawyers.
    Ask the lawyer to estimate the amount of time your case will take, so you understand what your total costs may be. Remember that circumstances may change, and your case may require more hours than the lawyer initially expected.
  • Retainer fee.
    A retainer can mean different things to different people. Make sure you understand your retainer agreement.

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  • Contingency fee.
    This type of fee is often used in accident, personal injury, or other types of legal cases in which someone is being sued.

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  • Statutory fee.
    The cost of certain probate and other legal work is set by statute or law. For these proceedings, a court either dictates or MUST approve the fee you will pay.

What you should know about a fee agreement

By law, fee agreements with your lawyer MUST be in writing when the lawyer expects fees and costs for your case to total $1,000 or more.

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Additional costs you may have to pay

In addition to their fees, your lawyer will charge you for other costs of your case, and you will be responsible for paying these costs even if your case is not successful. Costs can add up quickly, so it is a good idea to ask the lawyer in advance for a written estimate of what the costs will be, and whether you will have to pay such costs directly or if you will be reimbursing the lawyer for such costs paid on your behalf.

You may also ask to approve costs over a certain amount in advance.

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What to do if you can’t pay

If you cannot afford to pay your lawyer’s bill, try to work out a payment plan or another arrangement with the lawyer.

If you cannot reach an agreement on how to handle the problem, the lawyer may be entitled to stop working on your case or even withdraw as your attorney. You may ask if the work can be temporarily postponed to reduce your bill.

If you believe your attorney’s bill contains errors or unauthorized charges, contact the attorney immediately and try to resolve the problem.

How to Work with Your Lawyer

These simple tips should help you develop a positive, productive relationship with your lawyer:

  • Make sure you and your lawyer have the same goals.
  • Give your attorney all the information and documents necessary to understand your case, including information that could be damaging to your case or may seem unimportant to you.
  • Make sure you are comfortable with the attorney’s working style, such as whether you will be working with other people in the attorney’s office, or how the attorney prefers to communicate, such as by email, text messaging, phone, or in person, and how often to expect updates.
  • Let the attorney know if you would like to receive copies of letters and documents prepared for your case.
  • Make sure you have a clear picture of the expected timetable for your case and the steps involved in handling it. However, realize that it may not always be possible to predict the time required. If you are involved in a lawsuit, for example, the court’s schedule will influence how long your case will take.
  • Make sure you understand and agree with the attorney’s billing practices.
  • Communicate any questions or concerns to the attorney and listen to their responses.

However, problems could still arise. In such instances, help is available.

How to Avoid Problems with Your Attorney

You can help avoid problems with your lawyer by taking these steps:  

  • Make sure you are working with a licensed lawyer. Lawyers MUST be licensed to practice law in California, and every licensed California lawyer has a State Bar number. Ask your lawyer for their State Bar number.  
  • Use the Attorney Search feature on this website to verify that the attorney is licensed and to check for any disciplinary history.
  • Understand exactly what your lawyer will be doing for you and what it will cost, and get your fee agreement in writing.
  • Provide your attorney with all information related to your case, even information you think may be unimportant. This includes your current address and contact information.
  • Provide your lawyer with all documents related to your case. Keep copies for your records.
  • Ask the lawyer to estimate how long your case will take. Be aware, however, that unexpected developments can delay the process.
  • Ask your lawyer to keep you updated on your case. You might ask the lawyer to send you copies of letters and any official documents filed in court as well.
  • If you do not agree with your lawyer’s advice, let them know, and listen to their explanation.

If you are not satisfied with the answers, ask another lawyer for a second opinion.

You may also consider hiring another lawyer, although this may delay the resolution of your case.

Source: https://www.calbar.ca.gov/Public/Free-Legal-Information/Working-with-an-Attorney

Further Reading

About retainer fees

  • A retainer fee can be used to guarantee that the lawyer will be available to take a particular case. With this type of agreement, the client would be billed additionally for the legal work that is done. If the fee agreement is a nonrefundable 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.
  • Finally, a retainer fee is sometimes considered a down payment on legal services that the client will need. This means 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 pay an additional retainer.

About contingency fees

  • Contingency fees mean 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 your case, the lawyer does not receive any payment from you.
  • However, whether you win or lose your case, you will have to pay some or all of the court costs and other expenses, which can be quite high. Ask the lawyer for an estimate of such costs before you get started.
  • If you agree to a contingency fee, MAKE SURE sure the written fee agreement specifies the lawyer’s percentage and whether their share will be figured before or after other costs are deducted.
  • Contingency fee agreements MUST also state whether you will be required to pay the lawyer for related matters not specified in the fee agreement, which may arise 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. They are not set by legal statute or law.

About fee agreements

  • Here are some questions you may want to ask about your fee agreement:
  • How will the lawyer bill for their time?
  • Who else might be working on the case — an associate lawyer, legal assistant, paralegal? How will their work be billed?
  • How will other costs and expenses, as opposed to the lawyer’s fees, be paid?
  • What is the lawyer’s estimate of the total charges?
  • The final agreement should include a list of services the lawyer will perform for you and the type and amount of fees you will be expected to pay. It should also include an explanation of how the other costs and expenses will be handled and billed, including interest or charges for unpaid amounts.
  • Before you sign a fee agreement with your lawyer, make sure you understand all of the terms and requirements.
  • The lawyer may have a pre-printed fee agreement. If you don’t approve of any part of the agreement, ask the lawyer to make revisions or to draw up a new agreement better suited to your case.
  • A fee agreement may also list your obligations as a client — to be truthful, for example, and to cooperate and pay your bills on time.

Additional costs you may have to pay

  • Certified shorthand reporters’ charges for testimony at depositions and trials and for transcripts.
  • Copying and faxing costs. Lawyers also may charge for staff time spent on these tasks.
  • Experts and consultants’ charges. These costs generally relate to any time spent evaluating the case and testifying in court.
  • Filing fees, which are required by courts before they will accept legal papers.
  • Investigators’ bills. Investigators may gather information related to the case.
  • Jury fees and mileage costs. These are paid to jurors in civil cases in amounts set by law. The party requesting the jury must pay such expenses in advance.
  • Postage, courier, and messenger costs for mailing, shipping, or delivering documents.
  • Service of process fees charged by individuals who locate parties and witnesses and deliver legal papers to them.
  • Staff time for services related to your case.
  • Telephone bills.
  • Travel expenses for the lawyer when traveling on a client’s behalf. These charges can include gas, mileage, parking, meals, airfare, and lodging.
  • Witness fees and mileage charges. The individuals who testify at depositions and trials receive fees in amounts set by law. You also may need to pay travel expenses for witnesses.

Your lawyer may charge you for other costs as well. Make sure you understand all of the costs for which you will be responsible. Ask the lawyer if you will have to pay such costs directly or if you will be reimbursing the lawyer for such costs paid on your behalf.

Contact us for Clarifications

For questions or additional information about James D. Ford Esq.'s legal services in California (delivered via Blue Ocean Law Group℠), please contact us by clicking here or click here to book a consultation.

Source: State Bar of California Website ➲ Working with an Attorney.


This FAQ was created by James D. Ford Esq., GAICD CIPP/US CC | Principal Solicitor, Blue Ocean Law Group℠.

State of California Bar Number: 346590