How Are Lawyers Paid in Disability Discrimination Cases?

Learn how lawyers charge when representing employees in ADA disability discrimination cases.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Do you believe your employer discriminated against you because of your disability? If you were fired because of a disability, denied a reasonable accommodation for your disability, or harassed at work because of your disability, you should talk to an experienced employment attorney to find out if you have legal recourse against your employer.

Before you start shopping for a lawyer, you should know how lawyers charge for their services in disability discrimination cases.

Your Initial Consultation With a Discrimination Lawyer

Once you've come up with a list of names of potential lawyers (see Nolo's article on how to find and hire a discrimination lawyer), you'll want to set up an initial appointment with the most promising candidates.

When you call to make the appointment, ask how much the lawyer charges for this consultation. Some lawyers don't charge at all for an introductory meeting. Other lawyers charge a flat fee (for example, $200) for the meeting, or they charge an hourly rate, whether their usual rate or a reduced fee. Still other lawyers might give you some free time (such as an hour), and then charge for their time after that.

Find out ahead of time what you will have to pay, so you won't be surprised.

How Discrimination Lawyers Charge

When you find a lawyer you like, ask about fees. Typically, before you formally hire an attorney, you'll have to sign a contract (called a retainer agreement) that sets out the terms of your arrangement, including fees. When representing employees in disability discrimination cases, the most common fee arrangements are hourly fees and contingency fees.

Hourly Fees for Discrimination Work

In an hourly fee arrangement, you pay the attorney a set amount for each hour of work the attorney does. Because attorney fees can run to hundreds of dollars an hour, this arrangement makes sense if you need only a limited amount of legal work for the attorney.

For example, if your employer has offered you a severance package, and you want a lawyer to look it over and let you know whether it's fair, you would likely pay by the hour.

Or, if you want an attorney to review your situation and write a demand letter to your employer to negotiate a settlement, an hourly fee might make sense. Once you get beyond very limited amounts of time, however, a contingency fee arrangement usually is more cost-effective.

Contingency Fees for Discrimination Lawsuits

In a contingency fee set-up, your lawyer gets paid only if you win, and only out of what you get from your employer. For example, a contingency fee deal might state that your lawyer gets one-third of whatever money you win from your employer.

Some lawyers charge a higher percentage if they have to take your case to trial, which is very time-consuming. For instance, your fee arrangement might state that your lawyer gets 33% of your award if you settle up until 30 days before trial, at which point the percentage increases to 40%.

The benefit of a contingency fee arrangement is that you don't have to come up with thousands of dollars upfront to pay your lawyer, at a time when your job may be precarious or you may be unemployed. It also gives your lawyer a strong incentive to get you the highest damages award possible.

The drawback, of course, is that you will have to hand over a significant chunk of your winnings if your lawyer is successful.

Other Fee Issues to Consider

Attorney fee arrangements can be very complex. Although the basics—hourly fees or contingency fee percentage— aren't hard to understand, there are a number of details you'll need to nail down with your lawyer.

Who Will Pay Other Costs?

Attorneys' fees aren't the only expense when you take legal action. Your lawyer may have to pay:

  • fees to file a lawsuit
  • copying costs
  • stenographer fees, and
  • fees for expert witnesses.

Your fee arrangement should state who pays these costs and when.

Typically, you will be responsible for these costs, but will you have to pay them up front? Will the attorney front them, then collect them out of the money you're awarded? Will you have to make a deposit towards the costs?

Who Will Do the Work?

Especially if you're paying an hourly fee, your fee arrangement should provide details about who will work for you and what they charge. A less senior attorney should have a lower hourly rate than a seasoned pro, and a paralegal should charge significantly less.

How Are Awards for Statutory Attorneys' Fees Treated?

Many laws, including the ADA, require an employer who loses a lawsuit to pay the employee's attorneys' fees. (42 U.S.C. 12205.) You might expect that your attorney will just take this money and let you keep your entire damages award, but many attorneys handle this issue differently.

For example, the award of attorneys' fees might be added to your damages award, and then the attorney's contingency fee percentage will be applied to that total. In this case, your lawyer would end up getting paid some of your damages award in addition to the statutory attorneys' fee. This issue should be addressed in your fee agreement.

No matter what fee agreement you reach, it should be in writing, and signed by you and your attorney. When lawyers and clients have disputes with each other, they're most often about fees. To avoid problems down the road, make sure you understand the fee arrangement and get it in writing.

Updated January 17, 2024

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