California Attorney Fees: What It Costs to Hire a California Personal Injury Lawyer

Although people often hesitate to hire a lawyer because they believe that the cost may be out of their reach, California accident attorneys rarely, if ever, require payment of attorney's fees up front. Instead, an experienced California accident attorney will typically charge what is called a "contingency fee," an arrangement that allows you to hire your lawyer immediately but lets you wait until you receive a final settlement or judgment to pay your attorney's fees. In fact, in California even the costs of your case (i.e., court filing fees, fees to hire experts, telephone calls, copying and postage, depositions, etc.) will often be covered by your attorney until your case is resolved. This article explains the possible fee arrangements associated with hiring a California accident attorney.

California Accident Attorney Contingent Fees

Contingent fees, which are the preferred fee arrangement for accident attorneys in California, allow your attorney to represent you without immediate payment. Instead, your lawyer will receive a specific percentage of your settlement or court judgment once your case comes to a resolution. The percentage charged will vary with different California accident attorneys and is based on various factors, including location, how much experience the attorney may have in a particular practice area, the complexity of your case, your liability, the amount of time and effort spent in processing the case, or even the type of case. It is not uncommon for an attorney to accept a lesser percentage for a severe accident that promises a large amount of damages, while an attorney might charge more in a case where the injuries were minor or where it isn't clear who was at fault for the accident.

As with all states, California attorneys must follow specific ethics rules regulating how much they may charge. The general rule is that attorney's fees may not be "unconscionable," which essentially means that the fee your lawyer charges must not be outrageous or extremely unreasonable. However, California does not usually provide for a maximum or minimum contingency fee, except in some cases of medical malpractice. It’s advisable to ask any lawyer you are considering hiring what the percentage will be, and whether he or she will consider accepting a lower percentage contingent fee, especially if the demand on the attorney is low and there is insurance. A California accident attorney is required by law to put your agreement in writing and give you a copy. Be sure to read the fee agreement carefully, paying close attention to any contingency fee arrangement.

Costs in California Accident Cases

California accident attorneys will usually cover the court costs and other costs of your case (i.e., depositions, expert witnesses, private investigators, travel, process servers, etc.) until you receive your settlement check or win your case in court. In California, these costs (often called litigation expenses) must be spelled out in the fee agreement.

California accident attorneys are also required to state in the agreement whether the percentage they will receive as attorney's fees will be taken before or after any costs are deducted from the settlement amount. This can make quite a difference in what you will receive after all costs and fees are deducted. For example, if you receive a court judgment for $100,000 and your attorney deducts $15,000 for costs in processing your lawsuit and then takes 25% of the remainder, your attorney will take $21,250 and you will receive $63,750. However, if your attorney takes 25% of the $100,000 prior to deducting the costs, your attorney will receive $25,000 and you'll be left with $60,000, several thousand dollars less than what you would have received.

Choosing a California Accident Attorney: Sometimes You Get What You Pay For

Keep in mind as you choose your attorney that certain types of cases might be especially desirable to a California accident attorney, and you may have more bargaining power. In cases where injuries are severe or permanent and there is little question as to who is liable, and where the liable party appears to have insurance or be "soluble" (i.e., have the ability to pay), you may be able to find an experienced attorney who will take your case for a reduced contingency fee percentage. But word to the wise: though hiring the attorney with the lowest percentage contingency fee is attractive, make an informed choice. Choose a personal injury attorney who is experienced with cases like yours and who can tell at the outset whether it’s worth your while to pursue the case.