In a recent family court case I was involved in, a lawyer who has practiced law for 3 years and who has filed only 4 family court cases in Charleston asked the court to award $300 per hour for legal fees. To put this lawyer’s hourly rate into perspective, many family court lawyers in Charleston who’ve been practicing law for 15 to 20 years and who’ve handled hundreds of cases charge around $300 per hour. So, this lawyer’s hourly rate got me thinking about what is a reasonable legal fee in South Carolina (even if you’ve won the “Taco” award described below).
Three Basic Types of Legal Fees in South Carolina
Before I dive into what is a reasonable legal fee in South Carolina (and the “Taco” award), you should know that there are three basic types of fee agreements – contingency fee, flat, and hourly:
- Contingency Fee – This type of fee arrangement is common in personal injury cases. In this situation, the attorney earns a percentage of whatever is recovered either by way of a judgment after a trial or a settlement.
- Flat Fee – This type of fee arrangement is common for criminal and DUI defense cases. Essentially, the lawyer charges a total fee – win, lose, or draw – to defend the client in criminal court no matter how much, or how little, time is spent in court.
- Hourly Fee – This type of fee arrangement is common for family law cases and transactional work such as drafting contracts, agreements, and other paperwork for clients.
The Reasonableness of Contingency Fees in South Carolina
In South Carolina, a typical and reasonable percentage is 1/3rd of the recovery if the case is settled or 40% if a lawsuit is filed. These fees come off “the top” of the total amount recovered by the lawyer on the client’s behalf. In some “high risk” cases, I’ve heard of lawyers charging as much as 50% as a contingency fee. However, before you sign off on a 50% contingency fee contract, I encourage you to shop around and meet with other lawyers before agreement to this arrangement.
The Reasonableness of Flat or Hourly Legal Fees in South Carolina
Over the years, I have served as an investigator for fee disputes between clients and their lawyers in Charleston and Berkeley counties (the 9th Circuit). As an investigator for the Fee Dispute Board for the 9th Circuit., I meet with the client and with the lawyer, I examine the lawyer’s file to see how much work was done on the client’s case, and I review the amount of the fees charged. Afterwards, I submit my findings and recommendations to the Fee Dispute Resolution Board to decide whether the lawyer’s fee was reasonable.
As to what is “reasonable,” our appellate courts have given guidance as to what is a fair hourly fee in those types of cases where attorney’s fees can be awarded by the court such as family law cases. In those situations, the court considers several factors including:
- The lawyer’s professional standing;
- The fee customarily charged in the locality by other lawyers for similar services; and
- The reasonableness of hours billed by the lawyer.
Professional Standing of Counsel (The “Taco” Award)
Professional standing takes into consideration many things about the lawyer’s reputation and professional background. Professional standing includes how long the lawyer has practiced law, the lawyer’s reputation before the court, the lawyer’s experience handling certain types of cases, the lawyer’s involvement in organizations related to their legal field, whether the lawyer has published books regarding their legal field, law-related awards, honors, and recognitions, certifications (such as mediator training), and anything else the court believes is relevant to the lawyer’s professional standing. In other words, the longer the lawyer has practiced, the more they have been recognized for their accomplishments, then the more the lawyer can and will charge for flat fees or hourly rates.
In the case of the young lawyer I mentioned at the beginning of this article, one of the things the lawyer cited to as support for the lawyer’s professional standing was being recognized by a local magazine as being the “best lawyer” within a local town. Among other things, the magazine’s readers voted on the “best” tacos, “best” mac and cheese, “best” liquor store, “best” car wash, and “best” place to paddle board. On the one hand, being voted the “best” attorney alongside votes for the “best” taco or BBQ ribs in town is not likely an award that the family court would recognize when determining the lawyer’s professional standing. On the other hand, being rated “AV” by Martindale Hubbell that has been rating lawyers for 140 years based on surveys to other lawyers and judges, is more likely to be a distinction that the court recognizes.
Fee Customarily Charged in the Locality for Similar Services
The fees customarily charged by other lawyers within Charleston and surrounding areas is very much like an analysis of “market rates” for goods and services. For example, if you’ve ever eaten lunch at a deli on Broadway in New York City, then you know that a sandwich can easily cost you $25. Of course, here in Charleston, we don’t expect to pay that much for a pastrami on rye! These market rates hold true for lawyers’ hourly rates.
I know lawyers in other states who charge as much as $750 to $1000 per hour for legal fees in those family courts. Here in Charleston, the highest hourly rate I am aware of being charged by a family court lawyer is approximately $500 per hour, and this fee is more the exception than the norm. Many of my peers who have been practicing 20 years or more and who have handled hundreds of cases charge in the neighborhood of $300 per hour. Many young lawyers who’ve been practice for 5 years or less charge in the neighborhood of $125 to $200 per hour.
Looking at the example of the lawyer I mentioned above, this lawyer’s website doesn’t indicated when the lawyer started practicing law. As I mentioned in another article, if the lawyer’s biography does not include the year that the lawyer graduated from law school, then chances are likely that the lawyer has not been practicing for very long and is still learning the ropes. In this case, the lawyer has been practicing since 2011 and has a total of 4 cases in Charleston County. In all, this lawyer’s hourly rate of $300 per hour is outside the range of fees charged by lawyers with similar backgrounds.
Reasonableness of the Hours Billed By the Lawyer
To decide whether the total fees charged by a lawyer in South Carolina are reasonable requires an examination of how much time the lawyer took to perform various tasks. For many young lawyers, it takes them longer to draft pleadings, prepare for hearings, and so on than lawyers who’ve been practicing law for many years and who have done many of these things over and over. For example, if I am drafting a complaint for a divorce on adultery, I don’t need to research the case-law on adultery, learn what forms are required to file the complaint, or figure out how to serve the complaint on the other spouse. A less experienced attorney will likely take more time, and charge more fees, to accomplish these tasks. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a lawyer taking more time to service their client. However, at some point, the client shouldn’t be charged an extraordinary amount of time to perform simple tasks just because the lawyer is unfamiliar with the process. As an example, if the lawyer spent one hour drafting a complaint for a divorce, that would be a reasonable amount of time spent. However, if the lawyer spent 8 hours drafting that complaint, that would be an unreasonable amount of time spent for the services performed.
How Do I Know if My Lawyer is Worth It (or How Much Should You Pay for That Taco)?
Before you agree to pay the flat fee or hourly rate your lawyer is charging, do your homework. Ask how long your lawyer has been practicing (especially if the lawyer doesn’t include this information on their website). Ask how many cases similar to yours the lawyer has handled and about the lawyer’s professional background. Also, before you take it on faith that certain “awards” truly mean something, find out how the award was given. After all, tacos and lawyers are two very different things! Lastly, shop around and meet with other lawyers to find out what they charge. Remember, the longer an attorney has practiced law, the more you can expect to pay in fees because you are paying for that lawyer’s experience. Having said that, there are many newer lawyers who do a wonderful job on behalf of their clients. If their rate is reasonable, you should pay less than what you would expect to pay to a veteran lawyer.
Charleston, SC Lawyers for Family Law, Criminal Defense, & Personal Injury Claims
If you need an attorney in Charleston for a family law case, criminal defense, or a personal injury claim, then call the lawyers of Futeral & Nelson today.