How Much Does a California Personal Injury Lawyer Make?

You might have seen an advertisement for a personal injury lawyer or law firm that says something similar to, “it costs nothing upfront to hire us” or “we only make money if we win your case.” These statements might sound strange or perhaps even too good to be true. 

However, the truth is that because California personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis, those advertisements are accurate. The contingency fee arrangement is a unique type of legal fee that is most common in the personal injury field. 

The sections below will go over the different types of legal fee structures, explain the benefits of the contingency fee, and cover other related topics.

The contingency fee payment structure is just one type of legal fee. Learn about the most common types below.

Flat Fee

With this arrangement, the lawyer receives a flat sum as their payment. This type of fee is common with relatively straightforward, predictable tasks, such as writing a will or helping a couple with an uncontested divorce.

Referral Fee

This type of fee could come up when one lawyer refers you to another. The lawyer who made the referral may charge a small fee for doing so. However, this fee must be reasonable and must be agreed upon ahead of time.

Hourly Fee

Many lawyers charge by the hour for their legal services. This type of fee is one of the most common and is utilized in a wide range of practice areas. Lawyers charge different hourly fees depending on the types of services they offer.

Statutory Fee

In some types of cases, the lawyer’s fee is established by a statute or court. This type of fee might come up in the bankruptcy context, for example.

Retainer Fee

A retainer fee is a lump sum paid to the lawyer in advance of their legal services, and the amount is usually related to the lawyer’s hourly rate. A retainer fee is similar to a down payment you would make on a purchase such as a car.

Contingency Fee

Under a contingency fee arrangement, which is the type of fee used in the personal injury context in California, a personal injury attorney receives their fee as a percentage of the financial award they obtain for the client. The percentage is different depending on the case, but will usually be around 33%. The lawyer and the client agree to the percentage ahead of time. In California, unlike in some states, there is no law that specifically limits contingency fee percentages. However, the fee must be reasonable as per general ethical rules in the state.

The Benefits of a Contingency Fee Arrangement

There are two primary benefits of a contingency fee arrangement. The first is that the personal injury victim does not need to pay the lawyer any money upfront to hire them. This makes sense in this area of the law because personal injury victims are often put in a difficult financial position due to their injuries. Without a contingency fee, they might not be able to afford an attorney.

The other key benefit is that this system incentivizes the lawyer to maximize the value of their clients’ claims. The larger settlement or verdict that the attorney can gather for the client, the larger their contingency fee will be. In this sense, the contingency fee arrangement aligns with the goals of both the attorney and the client.

What Kinds of Cases Do Personal Injury Lawyers Handle?

A personal injury attorney in California can help with any type of personal injury accident, including but not limited to:

The contingency fee arrangement can apply to any type of personal injury accident.

How Is Liability Established in Personal Injury Cases in California?

Personal injury cases fall under tort law, broadly speaking. There are three broad causes of action in the personal injury context, each with a different set of evidentiary and legal requirements. These categories are:


Most personal injury cases are submitted via a negligence cause of action. Negligence means something like “carelessness,” and it takes place when a person violates a given duty of care, causing someone else to suffer harm as a result.

Strict Liability

Some types of personal injury cases, like product liability cases, use a strict liability cause of action instead. In these cases, the injured victim does not need to prove that the other party was negligent, just that they engaged in some sort of behavior (like creating a defective product) that caused a personal injury.

Intentional Torts

Yet still, other personal injury cases are based on intentional torts. Assault is one example. In these cases, there may also be a criminal proceeding – critically, the civil intentional tort claim can still prevail even if the at-fault party is convicted in criminal court.

In each of these categories, the personal injury victim has the burden of proof to support their claim for compensation by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the injured victim must establish that it is more likely true than not that the other party is at fault.

With the contingency fee payment system, personal injury lawyers in California only make money if they win or settle cases for their clients. Personal injury verdicts can be in the millions of dollars, which means a successful personal injury lawyer in the area can make a more than reasonable living if they are able to consistently achieve favorable outcomes in their cases.

If you’ve been hurt in a personal injury accident, you deserve effective legal representation. Most personal injury attorneys in the state offer free consultations, so it won’t cost you anything to reach out for legal advice and help.