If you’re having problems with your landlord or with a tenant in a building you own or manage, you might be wondering how much it would cost to get a lawyer’s help. And if you’ve already spoken to a landlord-tenant attorney who has quoted you a price to handle your problem, you’d probably like to know how that fee compares to what other lawyers would charge. To provide some insight on those questions, we compiled and analyzed data on fee arrangements reported by landlord-tenant attorneys across the United States. We also looked at their policies on free initial consultations for prospective clients. Here’s what we learned.
Most landlord-tenant lawyers bill clients by the hour (usually in 10- or 15-minute increments). In our study, landlord-tenant attorneys across the country reported their hourly fee ranges. The average minimum was $225 per hour, while the average maximum was $300. Within that range, the hourly fee a lawyer charges might depend on the case and the client.
Clearly, the total bill for a lawyer’s services can add up quickly at those hourly rates. Flat fee arrangements (discussed below) might offer more predictability and savings. But paying by the hour can make the most economic sense in some situations, such as when you want an attorney to answer specific questions or review a rental agreement. In particular, if you intend to handle the case yourself, but want some initial coaching and advice, paying for an hour or so of a lawyer’s time can be very worthwhile.
Several factors affect how much lawyers charge by the hour, including:
- Location. The data we studied confirmed what you might expect: It costs more to hire an attorney in large cities than in smaller towns. And fees can be much higher in cities with particularly high rents—especially where rent control ordinances apply—because so much is at stake. The average fees tend to be higher in states with huge metropolitan areas. For instance, landlord-tenant attorneys in California reported an average minimum hourly fee of $250 and an average maximum of $337.
- Years of experience. It’s also not surprising to learn that attorneys tend to charge more per hour as they gain more experience. Our study showed that hourly rates climb with years of experience, from an average range of $185-$240 for those with 10 years or less in practice to $294-$368 for lawyers with 30 to 40 years of experience. It’s worth pointing out that a higher hourly rate doesn’t necessarily mean a larger total bill. An experienced landlord-tenant attorney might be able to provide the answers and help you need in less time than a lawyer who’s still learning the ropes.
Landlord-tenant lawyers might charge a “flat” or fixed fee for a specific service, like handling a routine eviction for a landlord or fighting an eviction on behalf of a tenant. When you’re quoted a flat fee for a service, you know exactly how much you’ll pay, regardless of the lawyer’s success in handling the matter or how much time it takes.
Nearly three in ten (28%) of the lawyers in our study reported that they sometimes charged flat fees, while another 7% said they always used this fee arrangement.
If you’re filing a lawsuit over a landlord-tenant dispute that could result in a large settlement or court award, your lawyer might charge what’s known as a contingency fee. Under this fee arrangement, you don’t pay anything up front, but you agree to pay a certain percentage of any money the attorney wins for you. Here again, lawyers typically use a range of contingency fees, depending on factors including the complexity of the case and whether it goes to trial or is resolved through a settlement. For the attorneys in our study who reported using contingency fees, the average minimum was 31%, while the average maximum was 41%.
Contingency fees are relatively unusual for the types of legal services that landlords need. This fee arrangement is more common when lawyers represent tenants who are suing their landlords for problems such as:
- personal injury or property damage due to the landlord’s negligence or failure to maintain the property
- housing discrimination, or
- invasion of privacy.
Landlords who own many rental units and need regular legal services might find that it makes economic sense to hire a lawyer on a retainer, or a set annual fee (usually paid by the month). In the most common form of retainer fee, known as a “special retainer,” lawyers hold client funds in trust and bill against the funds as they do the work. Retainer fees for landlords generally cover routine services like uncontested evictions, updating or reviewing rental agreements, and other business matters.
About one in ten (11%) of the landlord-tenant lawyers in our study said they provided retainer-based services some of the time, while another 7% reported that they exclusively work on retainer.
When you suspect you’ll need legal assistance, it helps to know that many landlord-tenant attorneys offer free consultations. In our study, more than half (55%) of landlord-tenant attorneys said they offer some free consultation. The average length of those consultations was just over 30 minutes.
Tenants and landlords can resolve some conflicts without an attorney. But there are situations when tenants may need a lawyer to protect their rights and when landlords could use legal assistance to protect their property. When you’re contacting landlord-tenant attorneys, consider asking if they offer free consultations, and, if so, for how long. (But keep in mind that meeting with an attorney who charges for consultation could be worth it in the long run.) And make sure you prepare for your initial meeting with a lawyer.