Government and Law

Legal fees vary tremendously across state, survey finds

But it’s not just geography; practice specialties play a role, too.

October 10, 2014
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LANSING — So you need a lawyer.

If you’re in Kent County, expect to pay about $298 an hour on average. If you’re in Ottawa County, expect to pay about $278. Go to St. Joseph County and it’s $230.

But if you’re in Crawford County, the average hourly billing rate is $187, slightly above Marquette County’s $181. It’s even lower — $162 — in Missaukee County.

The Upper Peninsula’s average of $158 makes it the least costly of any region in Michigan, while downtown Detroit’s $304 ranks as the costliest.

Those are some of the findings of a new “economics of law practice survey” by the State Bar of Michigan. The organization has 40,400 active members, with 34,200 of them living in the state.

The findings have serious implications for the public.

Juan Salazar, executive director of the nonprofit Legal Aid of Western Michigan, said that 50 percent of the people seeking free representation “are turned away because we don’t have the capacity,” both in the state and nationally.

His agency resolves about 8,500 civil cases a year for low-income clients in 17 counties, including Montcalm, Kent, Mecosta, Lake, Mason, Newaygo, Allegan, St. Joseph, Osceola, Ottawa and Oceana.

“People that cannot afford an attorney aren’t going to get justice or get what they are potentially entitled to,” Salazar said.

And Wayne State University law Professor Peter Henning, an expert in professional responsibility, said, “A large group of people” can’t afford a lawyer. Low-income people “don’t have much legal aid any more. It’s been cut back substantially at the federal level, state level and private donations.”

Henning said individual clients have little negotiating power when it comes to fees, unlike large businesses that contract with law firms to handle lots of work.

The survey asked lawyers how the economy had affected their practice, said Anne Vrooman, the State Bar’s director of research and development.

About 47 percent of private practitioners said clients are paying their fees late much more often or slightly more often, while 43 percent said clients are making payments over time.

Overall, 35.2 percent of those in private practice said current economic circumstances are better than three years ago, 29.1 percent said worse and 28.8 percent said circumstances are the same.

As for the future, Vrooman said 42.4 percent predicted that economic circumstances will become better, 16.9 percent expected worse times ahead and 33.9 percent predicted that circumstances would remain the same.

The State Bar survey shows that, in general, clients pay more in urban than rural areas, pay more for more experienced than less experienced lawyers, pay more for large firms than small ones, and pay more for experts in some specialties compared to others.

There can be significant differences in what lawyers charge in neighboring counties, the survey found. For example, the average is $179 in Mason County — the Ludington area — but $209 in adjoining Manistee County.

Of course, location is only one factor. Another major determinant is a lawyer’s specialty.

For example, the statewide hourly rate for an expert in securities law — dealing with stocks and bonds — averages $400, or more than triple the $115 average for those who represent employers in workers’ compensation cases.

Lawyers for creditors in debt collection cases average $225, while private attorneys who represent local governments run the tab at an average $175.

As for lawyers assigned by judges to represent poor criminal defendants, they average only $112 an hour, contrasted with an average $222 for their counterparts who are hired by suspects paying their own bills.

Salaries for those who work for government or nonprofit groups tend to be lower than for those in private practice, according to the survey.

Wayne State’s Henning said the survey results also have important implications for aspiring lawyers facing a tight job market in the state.

Students are interested in what they’ll earn, “but for a lot of our students, the choice is between a job and no job,” he said.

“Most students graduating from Wayne State are from Michigan and plan to practice in Michigan,” he said. “(They) don’t have that many choices. Compensation is important but in the current hiring environment, it’s not like they have five different offers. It’s rare that you have more than one offer.”

Those who are attracted to government or nonprofit organizations are “crossing their fingers with compensation and hoping it will be enough. You’re not getting rich, but it’s such a good job from a training perspective and there’s a real joy in putting on the white hat and working for government or a nonprofit,” he said.

Salazar, of Legal Aid of Western Michigan, agreed that organizations can’t pay financially competitive salaries compared to the private sector in seeking staff. For many graduates, especially those owing $100,000 to $200,000 in student loans, “they want private law firm jobs to they can pay back their loans.”

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