Attorney fees are important to both attorney and client. To the client, the fee is the cost of the legal service purchased. To the attorney, the fee represents his or her compensation.

Whether a case is civil or criminal usually affects the fee arrangement.

In criminal cases it is common to have all legal fees paid in advance or to require posting of something of value as security for payment.

A common fee arrangement in civil injury cases is the contingent fee. A person injured in an accident might enter into a contingent fee contract where the lawyer's fee will be based on a percentage of the recovery. If there is no recovery, then the client would owe no attorney fee. There may, however, be a charge for the attorney's expenses such as filing fees, court reporter fees, fees for expert witnesses, etc. The decision to enter into the contingent fee contract is a matter for agreement between the attorney and client.

For routine legal services, the fee is often a fixed one. Examples are preparation of a deed, or a simple will. The lawyer knows how much time and effort it will take. It is also usual to have a contract where the fee is based on the time spent by the lawyer and his staff on your case. An example might be the defense of a suit for breach of contract. The attorney fee agreement might provide details of the hourly rate for each person or category of persons in the firm who might work on the case.

Normally, the attorney fee charged is determined by the agreement between the client and the attorney. If no specific agreement was made, the law assumes that the attorney is entitled to a reasonable fee.

Contingent fees must be in writing, but it is wise to get all fee agreements in writing. While there is no requirement that an attorney fee agreement be in writing, it is wise to get it in writing. It should spell out the terms of the relationship and specify how the fee will be determined.

If a dispute does arise, the lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct state the factors used to decide if a fee is reasonable. They are:

  1. The time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the case, and the skill required to perform the legal service properly.
  2. The likelihood, if apparent to the client, that if the lawyer takes a particular case, it will prevent him from taking other cases.
  3. The fee normally charged in the area for similar services.
  4. The amount involved and the results obtained.
  5. Time limitations imposed by the client or by circumstances.
  6. The nature and length of the professional relationship with the client.
  7. The experience, reputation and ability of the lawyer.
  8. Whether the fee is fixed or contingent.

No single factor determines what fee is fair and reasonable. How reasonable a particular attorney fee is must be judged on a case by case basis using the factors just described.

Sometimes there are disputes between attorneys and clients over the amount of the fee. If this happens there are several things you should do. First, sit down with your attorney and talk about it. Lack of communication, not the amount of the fee, may be the biggest problem, and it costs nothing to try.

If you are still not satisfied, the South Carolina Bar has a Resolution of Fee Disputes Board to which you can submit your fee dispute. They will conduct an investigation and make recommendations to settle the problem. Call the South Carolina Bar at 799-6653 to request an application to the Resolution of Fee Disputes Board.

If you cannot afford an attorney, the Legal Services Office in your community provides a free lawyer in many civil cases for those who qualify under Legal Services guidelines. For more information, read Legal Aid Services in SC.

If you are charged with a crime and can not afford an attorney, you may qualify for representation by the Public Defender in your county. Read Public Defender Services.

This information was prepared to give you some general information on the law. It is not intended as legal advice about any particular problem. If you have questions about the law you should consult a lawyer. If you do not know a lawyer, you can call the South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The number is 803-799-7100.