It takes a conscience — not a calculator — to figure out the right hourly fee to charge clients.
Years ago, I learned this lesson in a divorce case. I charged the going hourly rate for my services, although the opportunity was there to work on a contingent fee. I could have made millions, but my conscience wouldn’t let me.
Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5, which prohibits contingent fees in divorces, also had something to do with it. Perhaps that is the best place to start when calculating the right attorney fee.
The rule says that a lawyer “shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an unreasonable fee.” That is an objective standard, so basically it depends on what the industry dictates.
The good news, for the laboring lawyer anyway, is that attorneys generally charge a high hourly rate. If you want to get a sample of an objective rate, just check the fee requests in recent cases in your field.
For example, a seasoned civil attorney in some jurisdictions may charge $800 an hour for complex litigation. A judge may reduce the rate before approving a fee award, but it sets a standard.
Absent an adjudicated and objective value, an attorney is left to consider the competition and other factors when setting an hourly rate. Assessing the value of your services is where objective and subjective standards sometimes trade places.
Some things are priceless, like your health, your family, your sanity. You can’t put a real value on them, even though they are sometimes at stake in deciding how much your time is worth.
Megan Zavieh, a state bar defense attorney, says ultimately lawyers should consider the benefit to the client. It comes down to the quality of the services rendered.
“Value to the client, not your difficulty in performing, is the key,” she wrote for the Lawyerist.
It reminds of a young lawyer I hired once to do some contract work. She quoted an hourly fee that was higher than mine. I valued her work, so I paid her, thanked her and then raised my rates.
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