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Paying for a lawyer


Most lawyers charge an hourly rate, which covers their fee as well as their general overhead costs (law clerk, receptionist/secretary, rent, etc.). The fee is typically not associated with the success of a case or based on achieving particular results.

It is very difficult to estimate the total cost of a family law case at the beginning because there are many factors that affect the amount of time the lawyer will have to spend on it: how complicated the issues are, how willing you and your ex-partner are to compromise and whether any issues can be resolved out of court are all factors that affect the ultimate cost.

However, the lawyer should be willing to be frank with you about their fees and what payment arrangements they are prepared to make.


These are the expenses the lawyer incurs on your behalf: filing fees to the court, costs of photocopying, the cost of having documents formally served on another person, and so on.

The bill

Whether you are paying for your lawyer yourself or are on a legal aid certificate, your lawyer must provide you with a bill that shows how much they are charging in fees, with a breakdown of the time spent and on what date, as well as what the lawyer did during that period of time. The bill must also set out each disbursement.

The retainer

This is a fixed amount of money that you agree to pay, in advance, to hire your lawyer, although some lawyers are prepared to start a case without a retainer if you agree to provide payment on an ongoing basis. It is likely that the final cost of the case will be more than the original retainer. A
retainer contract between a lawyer and client specifies the nature of the services to be provided and the cost of those services.

The amount of a retainer varies from lawyer to lawyer. This money is deposited into your client account and the lawyer draws from this account to pay for services provided to you. Most lawyers will also require that the retainer maintain a minimum balance. If, at the conclusion of your relationship with the lawyer, there is a balance in the retainer account, it will be returned to you.

You should understand how the retainer will be used and what types of fees and disbursements you can be charged for before you sign a retainer agreement.

Payment questions to ask a lawyer

  • When am I paying for your time, and when am I paying for your clerk, paralegal or other staff to do something?
  • What do you charge for a trial?
  • What disbursements can I expect to find on my bill?
  • What portions of my bill are tax deductible?
  • How often will I be billed?
  • How will I be charged:
    • For phone calls
    • For sending/receiving emails
    • For letters you write
    • For the preparation of court and other types of documents
    • For photocopying and faxing
    • To have my court documents filed and served
    • For meetings with you or your assistant
    • For meetings that both you and your assistant attend

Legal services are not always tangible; therefore, regular itemized bills are necessary. This transparency helps build trust between you and your lawyer. Understanding what and how you are being billed can improve the way you interact with your lawyer.

If you live in Ontario and Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) has provided you with a certificate to cover your lawyer’s fees, your lawyer should provide you with a copy of every bill they submit to LAO. You should review the bill carefully, even though you are not paying it yourself, and discuss any concerns you have first with your lawyer and, if that is not satisfactory, with LAO. You want to be sure that your lawyer is using the limited time provided by your legal aid certificate as effectively as possible.

Learn more about legal aid.