Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Reality of Legal Fees

A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with another attorney, and I was lamenting about the fact that clients have such a difficult time understanding legal fees. The public tends to think that all lawyers set out to take advantage of their clients and charge inordinately high hourly rates without justification. Nothing could be further from the truth for most attorneys.

The moment a client calls, the first thing I do is determine whether their claim merits the involvement of a lawyer, and whether the ultimate recovery will exceed the cost of pursuing the case. We attorneys recognize that most disputes ultimately come down to money, and the goal is to end up with the most money in your pocket, or prevent a payout on your part.

There are really very few situations in which you will recover your attorney's fees. Even though most of the claims I file on behalf of homeowners will entitle them to attorney's fees, when it comes to settlement, they are rarely included. Most (in my case over 90%) cases settle. The cost of a trial and the chance of collecting on a judgment are just too great and too risky for most parties. For that reason, we always keep the attorney's fees in mind.

Principle is expensive. I wish I had a dollar for every time a potential client tells me that it's all about the principle, and not about the money. I always say, "Do you know what you will be telling me six months from now?" They look puzzled and answer "what?" "Your bill is too expensive!" Even if it's about principle now, at the end of the day, it will almost always be about the money. It is my job to be objective and level-headed and keep reminding you of that.

Fees. Attorneys are in a service profession. We have put in many years to learn our profession and you are paying us for our expertise. We charge for meetings, phone calls, e-mails and the time spent working on your case. I had one client who would always talk as fast as she could when she called me, until I assured her that I want my clients to feel free to call me, and I will only charge for the time spent discussing the case. I do not charge for the time spent talking about the Red Sox (unless you are a Yankees fan).

There is a constant debate in the legal profession about how to make our billing system more palatable to clients. We talk about flat fees, billing in phases, etc. The problem is, in litigation, too much of what we have to do is completely unpredictable. Most of the tenor of the case and the amount of work involved is dependant on the other side and their approach to the dispute. A cooperative opposing counsel may have the goal of resolving the dispute in the fairest, most expedient fashion possible. On the other hand, someone with a difficult, highly combative client, or an attorney who acts like a bulldog is going to drive costs up immensely. That is why we always try to keep the end in mind and keep costs down as much as possible, but cannot always do so.

I always say if I had a crystal ball, I would start a hedge (investment) fund. I want you to win as much as you do, but I cannot guarantee outcomes. So much of what occurs in a lawsuit is outside the attorney's control. I can only promise to put in my best effort and provide quality service and do excellent work. That is why you pay for my services. It is my hope that at the end of the day I will reduce the impact of your claim enough that you can move on with your life without having suffered a financial disaster. If you are made "whole," that is a win. If you get a windfall, which is extremely unlikely, that is an incredible bonus. Lawsuits are not intended to make you win the lottery.

So, when thinking about hiring a lawyer, make sure that you hire someone who factors in the cost of his or her services, and keeps the net result in mind. The goal is to minimize the damage you have suffered, and if that is achieved, the cost involved will have been worth it.

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