America has an interesting love affair with lawyers. On the one hand, television shows about lawyers capture our interest year after year. On the other hand, in daily life I cannot think of any profession that is criticized or disliked as much as the legal profession. Nevertheless, applications to law school continue to increase and few parents would be disheartened to see their children go on to law school. With the law running throughout our daily lives, however, it always amazes me how regularly I hear from friends about the difficulty of finding a lawyer or how reluctant they are to hire the lawyers that they find.
Whether my friends are looking for personal attorneys or for lawyers for their companies, I usually also learn that their difficulty is not so much that lawyers are hard to find, but that their fees are hard to stomach. I am sure that my friends are not alone. Chances are good that if you have ever tried to hire an attorney, you have felt the same way. While it is true that legal expertise can be expensive, depending on what services are performed, there are also many ways to help minimize costs. If you heed the following, I think you will find that the sticker shock from hiring a lawyer is not nearly as bad as it might be.
Due your Due Diligence
You would not buy a house without first having it inspected. You would not buy a car without taking it on a test drive. The same is true when you buy services, including legal services. You need to know that a lawyer is of good character before you can trust him with your legal matters, and possibly your money.
Begin your due diligence by asking your trusted friends and colleagues if they can recommend an attorney. A referral from someone you trust can give you a lot of comfort when you walk in the door that the lawyer has at least performed similar services for someone you know and that your friend or colleague was not troubled by the bill. If you get more than one referral that seems promising, take the time to meet with more than one attorney and then consider hiring the attorney that you trusted the most.
Do not stop, however, with merely a friend’s referral. Contact your state’s bar association or other governing body with jurisdiction over disciplinary matters for lawyers in your state, just to make sure that the lawyer that you are considering has not been brought before the Bar for disciplinary reasons. If you find that disciplinary action has been taken, continue your search with other lawyers. Also, if you really cannot locate an attorney through your personal network of associates, you can also contact your state’s bar association for a referral.
Understand Why You Need a Lawyer
Your first meeting with an attorney is a “consultation.” There should be no charge for a consultation. Rather, the consultation is an opportunity for you to sit down with an attorney so that you can explain why you feel you need an attorney and the attorney can let you know what he or she can do for you. In order to have a truly productive consultation, you should first do a bit of research into your issues. The more complex your needs, the more you need to understand in advance so that you can answer any questions that your lawyer may have and so that you will be in a better position to assess what the lawyer has to say.
Make Sure your Lawyer has Experience Handling Matters Like Yours
If you are referred to a great lawyer who helped a friend with a will, you may find that the lawyer has no experience with the matter that you need addressed. Do not assume that all lawyers can handle all matters. Just as you would not go to a stomach specialist if you needed an ear, nose and throat expert for medical issues, you should not retain a lawyer who is going to learn a new area of law at your expense. If you feel comfortable hiring an attorney who does not have experience representing clients with matters like yours, make sure that you are not going to be billed for the time that it takes the attorney to learn how to handle the issue at hand.
Negotiate the Retainer
If you decide to hire a lawyer following your consultation, the lawyer will most likely ask you for a retainer. A retainer is an advance on fees that the lawyer earns and costs that the lawyer will incur. Many lawyers will negotiate the amount of their retainer. Make sure that the lawyer will refund all unearned amounts from the retainer if you decide to terminate his services. Most lawyers will require you to sign an engagement agreement which defines the terms of their service and this right to a refund should be spelled out there.
Understand the Lawyer’s Fee and Cost Structure
Make sure you understand how the lawyer will be billing you. Is it by the hour? If so, does the lawyer bill in 15 minute increments, 6 minute increments or something else? Make sure that you know exactly how you will be billed. For example, if you expect to be billed for every 15 minutes that you are talking to your lawyer, make sure to keep track of your conversations. Then be sure to check your lawyer’s bills against your own records to ensure that his bills are consistent with your understanding. Also, if your lawyer is billing by the hour, ask for an estimate of his total cost and periodic updates of the cost. If your lawyer seems to be going over estimate, find out why. If it is the lawyer’s fault, negotiate the bill down.
If you have hired your lawyer to perform a routine matter, you should also discuss the possibility of a flat fee for the services to be delivered. For example, if you are asking a lawyer to look at a standard form of purchase and sale agreement for a house you are buying, and you just want to make sure that it is appropriate for you to sign it, a flat fee may be quite appropriate.
If your lawyer wants to represent you on a contingency basis (a fee arrangement in which you pay to the lawyer a percentage of any recovery he obtains from you in connection with your matter, as in litigation), you should also explore what the cost would likely be if the lawyer billed you on an hourly basis. In some circumstances, you may find that you can save a lot of money by paying on an hourly basis, especially if you expect a big recovery and are confident that you will get it soon. At the same time, if you do not have the ability to pay by the hour, a contingent fee may be much more appealing to you, even if it means giving up more of your recovery.
You also need to make sure that you understand what costs will be passed back to you. Will long distance phone charges be billed back to you? Can you avoid those charges by simply calling your lawyer instead of simply having your lawyer call you? Are there charges per page for incoming and outgoing faxes? Can you save money by mailing or e-mailing documents to your lawyer rather than faxing them?
Make Sure the Lawyer You Hire is the Lawyer Who Should Do Your Work
If your lawyer has partners or associates, make sure that the lawyer you hire is the lawyer who is actually doing your work. Very often, a more junior lawyer may be available to perform services for you at a much cheaper hourly rate. You would still want your lawyer to review the junior lawyer’s work, but you can save much money in this way.
Respond to Your Lawyer in a Timely Manner
Don’t make your lawyer ask any question twice. Every time your lawyer has to ask you for something, you are likely to be charged. If you are responsive, you will save money because your lawyer will not have to review his files and constantly reassess what materials and information he is missing from you. Also, when you send materials to your lawyer, make sure everything is organized and legible to the extent possible so that your lawyer does not have to figure out on his own what you have sent. Always include a cover note that explains what you have provided. This is all part of being a good client.
Do Not Badger Your Lawyer
After you have hired an attorney, you need to trust that your attorney knows what he is doing and will perform his obligations to you in a way that serves your best interests. If your matter is quiet for a few days or weeks, do not constantly badger your attorney with phone calls. The calls will only cost you money in increased fees (if your lawyer bills by the hour) and distract your attorney from your matter.
Review Your Legal Bills Before you Pay Them
Even the best of lawyers can have clerical errors slip through in a legal bill. Read your bill as soon as you receive it and look for time entries that do not make sense to you. Your attorney may have inadvertently charged you for another client’s fees. Your lawyer will correct the bill if you call it to his attention, but if you do not catch the error, no one else is likely to catch it.
Ultimately, the best way to minimize legal costs is to find a good lawyer and to cultivate a trusting relationship over time. Usually you will find that lawyers know who to call when they do not have the relevant expertise.
What experience do you have with lawyers and their bills? Do you feel you have gotten good value for your legal costs or have you paid for more than you received? Let us know.
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