Attorneys use a variety of fee arrangements depending on their practices and the particular cases. Some work on an hourly rate (meaning you pay for every minute spent on your case). Others work on a contingency-basis (typical in personal injury cases where the client pays no fees unless and until there is a recovery from the other side). Some attorneys work on a flat-fee basis for some projects. Many, like me, offer a variety of fee arrangements to fit the situation. A common question is how much should you pay your attorney. Another way of asking that is: How much is your attorney worth?
Attorney Fees and Attorney Worth
In the ideal situation, the attorneys’ fees match the attorney worth. What do I mean by attorney worth? What is it worth to you in order to receive the services you receive. Oftentimes, the “worth” is not known at the beginning of the relationship. Will you win? Can the attorney successfully prosecute or defend your case? Is the attorney’s advice helpful? Sometimes it is difficult to determine the attorney worth until you know the end result. But you usually agree to the attorneys’ fees–or at least the method of determining the attorneys’ fees–at the beginning of the relationship.
As time progresses, the perceived worth of the services may change. Sometimes the perceived worth changes comes from a change in the case–the case becomes more or less valuable than originally believed. Other times the perceived worth changes because pursuing the case becomes a higher or lower priority in your life. Hopefully the change does not occur because the attorney is doing a poor job. If that’s the case, then you certainly should seek the advice of another attorney to determine whether you are receiving the services you bargained for.
How Do the Court’s Determine Attorney Worth?
In some cases, the losing party may have to pay the winning party’s attorneys’ fees. When that happens, the winning side files a motion for attorneys’ fees and the court determines the amount of attorneys’ fees to award. Usually, the court will award attorneys’ fees based on the Lodestar method. The Lodestar method looks at the attorneys’ reasonable rates and multiplies that by the number of reasonable hours the attorney spent on the case. I say “reasonable,” because the courts have discretion to determine whether an attorneys’ rates or hours are too high.
In a recent case, Hiken v. Department of Defense, that spanned several years, the winning side asked for over $380,000 in attorneys’ fees. The attorneys’ argued their rates ranged from $350 per hour to almost $700 per hour. The court thought the requested hourly rates were too high, and only awarded about $150,000, based on a $200 per hour rate. In reversing the lower court’s award, the 9th Circuit said:
From time to time, fee applicants request awards higher than that which the evidence may, upon close review by a neutral judge, fairly permit. But a fee applicant’s decision to request a higher rate does not permit a court to disregard different rates if the evidence in the record supports them.
In other words, the court could not just reject the attorneys’ reasonable rate and create the court’s own rate just because it wants to. The case is now back at the lower level so the court can reconsider an appropriate rate.
A useful tool in determining appropriate hourly rates is the Laffey Matrix. This matrix lists hourly rates for attorneys of varying experience levels and paralegals/law clerks. The matrix is prepared and updated every year by the Civil Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (USAO). It is supposed to be used to evaluate requests for attorney’s fees in civil cases in District of Columbia courts. Courts in other jurisdictions will oftentimes refer to the matrix when making fee awards.
Laffey Matrix and Attorney Worth
So, what does the Laffey Matrix say about attorney rates? The following is a list of rates based on years of experience from the 2015-2016 Laffey Matrix:
- 31+ years $568
- 21-30 years $530
- 16-20 years $504
- 11-15 years $455
- 8-10 years $386
- 6-7 years $332
- 4-5 years $325
- 2-3 years $315
- Less than 2 years $284
- Paralegals & Law Clerks 154
The Laffey Matrix is not the final word on reasonable hourly rates. The actual rates will vary depending on location, experience, firm resources, etc. I tell all my clients that attorneys’ fees are negotiable. That doesn’t mean your attorney will work for free, but you should have a frank discussion with any prospective attorney regarding their rates and experience. Be a well-informed consumer and find the right attorney that works for you.
Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.
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