How much is this going to cost?

Frequently, I get phone calls asking about the price to do a particular type of work.  Sometimes I can quote a price, usually subject to some sort of caveat.  If the question is what do you charge for a will, I’ll ask whether it is for one person or for a husband and wife, and depending on the answer I can quote a price for a ‘simple’ will, which means outright devise to named beneficiaries and no trusts and no tax planning. And normally I will stick to that price unless something comes up in the interview that makes me think that maybe the client needs something more complicated  than a truly ‘simple’ will.
On the other hand, sometimes I will get asked what it costs to ‘change a trust’ or to sue someone. The best answer I can give in those types of cases is “it depends”.  Until and unless I have sat down with the client and reviewed the documents, talked to the client and found out the exact facts and what the client wants, I really can’t quote a price over the phone.  And, honestly, I doubt any lawyer could; the best a lawyer could tell you is that the prices ‘start’ at a particular level, but no one can tell you exactly what something is going to cost until they know exactly what is involved.
The best analogy I can give is that of a car mechanic. You can call up a mechanic and ask what a specific procedure will cost; in many cases they can quote an accurate figure, depending on the nature of the repair. What will it cost to rotate tires? To do an oil change?  To fix a flat?  Most mechanics will be able to tell you what it will cost to do these things. On the other hand, if you call up a mechanic and say, “My car is making this noise, it goes ‘thumpa-thumpa-thumpa’ when I do this” the mechanic is going to tell  you that they can’t diagnose it over the phone, they don’t know what is wrong with the car and that  you would have to bring it in and let them look at it. And that’s a perfectly reasonable answer. A mechanic can’t tell what is wrong with a car until they see the car.  And, of course, there is always the danger that the customer has misdiagnosed what is wrong with the car; if you ask the mechanic what it will cost to change the brake pads and you get into the shop and the mechanic says, you need brake line work and it will cost more than a simple brake pad change.  Likewise, sometimes what clients think they need and what they actually need are different; just because a client thinks they need something doesn’t mean they do need that.  And what it will cost depends on what they actually need.
The point is, most lawyers will be up front about what something may cost, but until the lawyer finds out exactly what is involved and what has to be done, any estimate is just that; an estimate.  The good news is, many lawyers will offer either free or low cost initial consultations for lots of matters; and ultimately, you are almost always better off talking to a lawyer and finding out what you need rather than guessing.

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