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Think hiring an attorney will cost you tons of time and money? Not always.

Posted March 16, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT

The cost of working with a lawyer often comes as a pleasant surprise to individuals who've never sought legal help and don't understand legal fee structures. (vetre/Big Stock Photo)

This article was written for our sponsor, Riddle & Brantley.

The idea of working with a lawyer can evoke unsavory images among the general public — things like clients phoning a firm for a quick two-minute conversation and getting charged the full hourly rate. It doesn't have to be this way.

The cost of working with a lawyer often comes as a surprise, whether pleasant or unpleasant, to individuals who've never sought legal help and don't understand legal fee structures. The fee structure can have a significant impact on the amount a client pays, and it varies widely by firm, area of practice, attorney experience, geographic location and other factors.

For example, according to a study released by Nolo, divorce lawyer fees cost around $15,500, and hourly fees range from $250 to $900, or more.

A lawyer may charge by the hour or by a flat fee per case, and retainer fees, contingency fees and consultation fees can all impact the bottom line. Attorneys who work on certain issues, like family law and criminal defense, for example, typically require clients to pay a consultation fee in addition to legal fees.

Court appearances may incur an additional charge.

One lesser known payment arrangement used by law firms are contingency fees. While certain firms charge for their work irrespective of the outcome — win, lose or draw — others price their work based on the outcome for the client.

"I think people think it's going to cost them just to talk to us," said Gene Riddle, founding partner at Riddle & Brantley law firm in Raleigh. "We don't get paid, we don't charge any fees until we've successfully handled the matter for you."

While contingency fees aren't common in family law cases, they're seen frequently in areas of practice where the structure makes sense, like personal injury law. This arrangement tends to work best for lawyers and clients in cases where money is being claimed, as the lawyer agrees to a fixed percentage of the recovery.

Contingency fees protect the client from the need to pay lawyers up front, and they open the doors to lower-income individuals who otherwise might not seek legal assistance. This structure may also incentivize attorneys to work diligently to ensure the case goes the client's way, as only a win for the client produces a win for the attorney.

Riddle & Brantley, for example, staffs the firm such that someone is readily available to respond to client questions.

"We have after hours phone lines that are open late into the evening and start early in the morning. We monitor emails after we close," Riddle said. "If there's something my staff can't answer, clients can sometimes contact an attorney on their cell phone, and they do."

Cindy Konig's story of working with the firm echoes the dedication to clients Riddle noted. When her niece was fatally hit head-on on her way to work on Oct. 10, 2013, her mother contacted Riddle, a friend of the family, and asked him to take care of the case.

"Gene basically took the case, and we'd give him material as he needed it," Konig said. "We got papers together and different things that he would need for the case."

Konig and her husband, already overwhelmed by grief from the tragedy, began the process of adopting her niece's son at the time of her death.

"Gene and Riddle & Brantley carried the load. We didn't have to keep going to him and say where are you on this, we haven't heard," Konig recalled. "He kept us well-informed, and we didn't have to worry about it because we knew that he would handle it."

Under the firm's compensation structure, Konig and her family weren't overwhelmed by bills and costs during their time of grief. And while no amount of money can replace a lost child, the settlement did impart a sense to Konig that justice had been served on behalf of her niece.

It should be noted, however, the results of Konig's case do not guarantee a similar outcome, and they should not be construed to constitute a promise or guarantee of a particular result in any particular case. Every case is different, and the outcome of any case depends upon a variety of factors unique to that case.

"I couldn't have achieved a similar settlement without them. I was distraught from losing her at such a young age. She was 43," Konig said. "I was trying to care for her little boy, and there was just no way we could have done it if we hadn't had Gene and his company and all the people that work with him to see us through it."

This article was written for our sponsor, Riddle & Brantley.

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