Most lawyers will happily answer questions about costs. These 10 questions may help you understand how lawyers can charge for their services.
The costs of legal services
Legal services can be complex and the final cost can depend on a number of things including, the type of service, individual details of the case, and how the matter develops. The expertise and experience of the lawyer may also impact how a lawyer will charge for their services.
Your lawyer should be clear about how much they are likely to charge for their services. Your final bill should also be clearly explained and in the price range you expected.
If the matter becomes complicated, your lawyer should explain when this happens and provide you with an update on how this may effect the costs.
Lawyers have a duty to provide you with a costs agreement when the costs are expected to be more than $1,500.00. The costs agreement should be given to you when you appoint the lawyer. The costs agreement should clearly explain the costs for the service and any terms and conditions that may affect the final price.
Ask questions if you don't understand something. There are no silly questions. Asking questions will help you understand what is going on during your matter and how the lawyer may charge for providing a service. Sometimes the lawyer won't be able to give you a fixed cost amount, but they should be able to give you an idea of the price range.
Finding the lawyer who is right for you and who can provide the service you need is important. A consultation by phone, face‐to‐face, letter or online can help you make your decision.
A consultation is generally the first meeting you have with the lawyer.
A lawyer may charge for a consultation, but they should tell you and explain any conditions before you book the consultation. For example, they may offer the first 30 minutes free but charge for their time after that.
A lawyer should speak to you about costs and provide the best possible information so you can make an informed choice.
If you have a consultation, make the most of the opportunity. Do your research to find the right lawyer – you can check online, talk to friends and family, or speak to consumer organisations to help you make your choice.
Be aware that not all lawyers offer a free consultation. Remember to ask if there is a fee when you book.
This question may help you find a lawyer that can work with your budget. For example, two lawyers may provide very different estimates for the same service.
Much like any other trade or profession, different lawyers may provide different quotes for the same service. For example, one lawyer may be more experienced or an expert in the area of law your case involves. If your matter is complex, you might prefer to pay more for your legal costs. If your case involves a fairly straight forward issue, you may decide to choose a less expensive estimate.
Experience and skill are just two reasons costs may differ. Fee estimates may vary for many reasons. Remember to ask questions so you understand how the the lawyer will charge for their services.
It’s ok to shop around. Get advice to help you find a lawyer that you trust and feel comfortable talking to. Speak to family and friends or contact organisations like the Queensland Law Society (QLS) for free guidance on finding a lawyer. You can contact the QLS by telephone on 1300 367 757.
Different ways of changing
Lawyers have different ways of charging depending on the service they provide. For example, a lawyer may offer a fixed fee for writing a will, but will charge an hourly rate for the administration of a will after someone has died (probate service).
Asking questions will help you understand the method the lawyer will use to charge for their service. You can also ask the lawyer to explain in detail the way they will charge.
Questions 4 and 5 below may help with understanding the differences between fixed fee and hourly rate charges.
No win - no fee
Conditional fee arrangements are also known as ‘no win - no fee’ arrangements. No win - no fee arrangements mean that if you are not successful, you generally won't have to pay your lawyer’s fees, but you may need to pay some out of pocket expenses such as barrister’s fees or court fees. You may also have to pay some of the other side’s costs.
If your matter is successful you will have to pay your lawyer’s fees, and an uplift fee. Uplift fees are intended to cover the risk that the firm takes when they enter into a no win - no fee agreement. In most cases if you are successful, you should be able to recover some of your fees from the other side.
See the information on No win - No fee costs agreements.
If you are thinking about entering into one of these arrangements, make sure you ask detailed questions so that you fully understand the terms and conditions.
If you are unsure of a word or legal term your lawyer has used, remember to ask them to explain what it means.
The term ‘fixed fee’ can be used in different ways. Sometimes a fixed fee will cover all costs for the service you need, but in some cases it may just refer to the lawyer’s fees. For example, a ‘fixed fee’ in a property case may, or may not, include charges related to searches.
Sometimes a lawyer may offer a ‘fixed fee’ for a set stage of the matter. It is important to ask your lawyer exactly what is meant by a ’fixed fee' and what it covers.
Estimate of costs
Lawyers will sometimes give you an estimate of the costs. This isn’t the same as a ‘fixed fee’ and you should confirm with your lawyer what the estimate covers. This can be important as sometimes a lawyer may charge a fixed fee for a particular stage but give an estimate for the next stage. Remember you can ask for an estimate for the total cost of your matter.
Understanding how the lawyer charges
Ask questions to understand exactly when the clock starts. For example, if you call your lawyer for an update on your matter, will you be charged for the call? Ask whether the charges will be rounded up. Many lawyers charge in six minute blocks. Confirm with your lawyer whether this is how they will work.
For ‘fixed fees’, ask if there are any other costs not covered in the hourly rate.
Ask if your estimate includes everything that you might be charged. Sometimes there are additional costs, such as stamp duty, if you are buying a house.
It’s good to be clear about how much the whole legal transaction will cost, what you will need to do during the matter, and what your lawyer is able to do for you.
If your lawyer charges an hourly rate, they must give you an estimate of how much the overall service will be, and they should provide revised estimates if costs change during the matter.
Lawyers have an obligation to provide their clients with costs disclosure if their estimated services will be more than $1,500 excluding GST. Ask your lawyer for an estimate of how many hours it might take to do the work you need. Check whether there are any additional fees not covered in the hourly rate.
Range of costs
You can also ask your lawyer to provide an estimate for a range of costs (for example an estimate between $1,500 and $2,500) if the lawyer is uncertain how the matter will progress. Having a range of costs may help you understand how much the total bill could be, and allow you to budget for that expense. Remember to check whether there may be additional fees not covered in the costs range.
Let your lawyer know if you prefer to set a spending limit on costs. This means the lawyer must check with you when the costs approach the limit you have set. Setting a spending limit can help you keep track of the progress of the matter and the costs.
Once you understand the hourly rate, ask your lawyer for an estimate of how many hours it will take and what’s included. Also ask what might cause the estimate to change and, how likely it would for the estimate to change.
Ask whether your costs might change as your matter progresses, and what might cause them to change.
When costs change
There may be circumstances where costs change. This is most likely if new information or developments make a case more difficult. For example, in a divorce case much is dependent on the other person’s cooperation to resolve the matter quickly.
If a case gets complicated even a ‘fixed fee’ arrangement can change. Your lawyer should explain when this might happen and also set out the terms and conditions in your costs agreement. Ask questions if you don't understand something and check the costs agreement for a clause indicating whether the lawyer can charge additional fees.
Talk with your lawyer
Generally your lawyer should tell you as soon as they are aware of any changes to the costs of your matter. If there is a big increase in costs, your lawyer must tell you about it and let you know what your options are.
You can ask your lawyer if you think the costs may change. If you have agreed a spending limit (see question 5), then your lawyer should stop work until you confirm that you want to continue.
Remember you always have options even in the middle of a legal transaction. Your lawyer should talk with you as your matter progresses so you know how much their service will cost and what your options are. You can ask how you can work with the lawyer to reduce costs.
Cost changes may not always mean an increase. If your matter is less complicated than first thought, it may result in the costs going down. Talk to your lawyer throughout the matter so you understand your final bill and how the lawyer charged.
By asking this question you are checking that your lawyer has given you all the information they reasonably can to make sure you have an accurate estimate of your costs.
Remember to check if your estimate includes GST.
Your lawyer should always talk to you about how their service will be paid for.
If you need legal assistance but are not able to pay lawyers’ fees, there are agencies that may offer legal assistance depending on your circumstances and your matter type. Even if your lawyer isn’t registered to provide Legal Aid they should talk to you about it.
For more information on help with legal costs, contact Legal Aid Queensland and your local Community Legal Centre for free information and advice.
Legal Aid: 1300 651 188
LawRight: 07 3846 6311
A lawyer should give you clear information on their billing and payment processes and offer you reasonable time to make payments. They should also let you know of any penalties they will charge if the bill is not paid on time.
Money in advance
It is common for a lawyer to ask for money in advance to cover your legal costs. The lawyer will hold this money in a separate account (trust account) for you and they can only use it to cover your legal costs or certain expenses. You will need to authorise the payment of any money from this account.
Interest on trust money
No interest is paid to clients for funds held in trust accounts. All interest earned on trust accounts is paid to the Queensland government and is used to fund the regulation of the legal profession, Legal Aid, and community legal services.
While some lawyers may be willing to negotiate a payment option, there are no obligations on lawyers to offer this service. You should always ask the lawyer at the first consultation about payment options. This will help you find a lawyer whose service fits your circumstances.
Your lawyer should explain their approach to resolving billing disagreements. The lawyer should also explain the system they have in place for handling complaints.
The lawyer should tell you about your right to make a complaint to the Legal Services Commission, or your option to have the costs assessed by an independent costs assessor. They must not charge you for looking at your complaint.
Lawyers shouldn’t charge for looking at an issue, concern or complaint made against them. If you are unhappy with the outcome of their investigation into a complaint you’ve made, or a concern you have raised, you can contact the Legal Services Commission for more information.