By Anton Roder
I spent about 8 years working as a legal assistant for two different legal firms. During that time people often complained about their legal bills. Usually it’s the same people who were on the phone daily and came to see their lawyer every other day.
What I want to share with you here are some general tips on how you can reduce the amount you will end up paying to your lawyer. The basic rule is to do the things you can do yourself and leave the actual legal work up to your lawyer.
Disclaimer: Nothing said here should be considered legal advice. If you require legal advice, consult an accredited legal professional within your jurisdiction.
1. Don’t use a lawyer
I can almost see the question marks. The legal process is the last stop in argument resolution. Many people these days treat it like it is the first and only solution. Having marital problems? See a counselor and try and fix it. Non-paying client? Phone him first. Make a payment agreement you can both live with. If he has no assets and no income, suing him will just put you both deeper in the hole.
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2. Pick the right lawyer
This is the biggie. My dad is primarily a criminal lawyer. When he got his degree they had to learn the existing legislation (law) by heart. Now that is impossible. Law students focus on interpreting and reading the law. That’s because the law is rapidly changing and expanding on a daily basis. Anything a lawyer learned as a student may be obsolete or different by the time he starts to practice.
For you it means that no lawyer can responsibly stay well informed about several branches of law. Some lawyers may still have a “general” practice, but this will be limited to a few branches of law. Firms with multiple lawyers may have lawyers who each specialize in a different field.
Essentially, if you’re getting a divorce, get a divorce lawyer. Starting a corporation? Use a lawyer specializing in corporate law. In trouble with the law? Why would you even risk your freedom on someone who may never have seen the inside of a courtroom? Get a criminal lawyer.
The best way to find a good specialist lawyer is by referral. Someone you know has probably used a lawyer for a similar purpose. Ask them for a referral and what their general experience was. Once you’ve identified one or more candidates, research them. Your first stop is their regulating law society. Check if they’re members in good standing. Steer clear of lawyers who have had disciplinary actions successfully brought against them.
The next step is the internet. There are many services online that offer rating services. Just be careful of those glowing 5 star recommendations. Likewise, really bad ratings may simply be sour grapes, not necessarily from clients. Pay attention to the in-between ratings and check for common complaints and good points.
3. Penny wise, pound foolish
So you’ve found a lawyer with the right specialization. He’s also twice as expensive as your regular lawyer. Better to go with the cheaper option, right? Not necessarily. If a lawyer is really good, he will generally charge more for his services. The trick is that he’s better at what he does. If it takes him a third of the time to resolve your matter, he ends up being a better choice. That said, going with the most expensive lawyer may not be your best bet. There’s usually a middle ground between ability and cost which is where you’re likely to get the most cost-effective solution.
4. Get it in writing
Most lawyers will have a fee agreement. This will clearly specify their hourly rate and any other expenses you may be responsible for. If your prospective lawyer does not have a fee agreement, this is a massive red flag. Besides this fee agreement, you also need to get in writing what exactly it is the lawyer will be doing for you. This will protect you from being on the hook for work you didn’t want or need.
Some lawyers may also offer a standard fee for some types of work. “Paperwork” jobs like contracts, wills or property transfers usually fall in this group. Remember that the price quoted is for a “standard” job. If you want more than that covers, you may end up paying more. Make sure you discuss what other expenses you may be liable for.
More rarely your lawyer may work on a percentage fee. This is when he takes a percentage fee of what you hope to get from a successful case. In this case, make sure you know what happens if you lose.
5. Be on time
I cannot remember how many times I had to phone a client and remind them they had an appointment. 20 minutes later they pitch up. While some lawyers will be more lenient about this, the majority will not. The time you’re wasting they could be billing to someone else. If you have an appointment, they will charge you for that time whether you’re there or not. If you can’t make an appointment, let them know beforehand. Your fee agreement will usually specify how cancellations are handled, but 48 hours notice being required is not uncommon.
If it’s your first appointment, come early. There will most likely be some kind of paperwork to fill out that does not involve your lawyer. It’s better to do this before your actual appointment.
6. Know what you want
Figure out what you want before you go see your lawyer. Put it in writing so it makes sense to you. Take that with you to your first appointment. Then you and your lawyer both know exactly what is expected. If it’s in writing, your lawyer is less likely to do things you didn’t want him to do. By knowing exactly what you want before you go see your lawyer, you will save a lot of time, especially on the initial consultation.
7. Don’t mind your work being relegated to staff
People are often upset to hear that some part of their work is being done by a staff member. A lot of the grunt work in a legal practice is done by the staff. Secretaries make appointments and type dictated correspondence. Legal assistants draft legal documentation, gather information and may even see you for updates or to get information from you that doesn’t require your lawyer’s intervention.
For you it means that the time for staff is billed at a lower rate than your lawyer. The people who work at a law firm are mostly well-trained. Many of them even know more about their specific part of the process than your lawyer. Ultimately your lawyer is responsible for everything their staff does, which means you don’t have to worry about it.
It also means that if you’re just passing along some information, you could just as well let the secretary give a message, rather than insist on talking to your lawyer directly (and being billed at his rate).
8. Use electronic media
One of my biggest time sinks as a legal assistant was sorting through paperwork and putting the information it contained into a usable format. This is especially true of financial information. As part of your initial consultation make a point to ask what software your lawyer uses. Then, when they ask for something, unless it’s evidence, send it to them in an electronic format.
An excellent example would be a list of assets and debts in a divorce. Go and get that information before seeing your lawyer. Otherwise he has to phone your debtors and creditors and he has to draft a special dispensation from you allowing him to obtain your information.
Even if you do have to submit something as evidence, feel free to organize and document it. Nothing is more disheartening (and time-consuming) than being handed a black bag full of receipts with little scrawled notes on them about what they’re for.
It may also be better for you to communicate with your lawyer by email, rather than phone. That way you stay on track and dispense with the 10 minutes of social niceties involved in a phone call. For your lawyer it means he can deal with it at his leisure and for both of you it’s good, because it leaves a paper trail. (Most lawyers love having things in writing) If it’s something urgent, phoning may be the better option.
9. Be forthright
Once you’re committed to the process, don’t hide things from your lawyer. Chances are he’s heard similar versions of your dirty little secrets from dozens of other clients.
But nothing will upset your lawyer more than being blindsided in a proceeding, because you did not tell him something. This is especially true in a court proceeding. It means he then has to spend more time fighting fires afterwords, instead of preparing for it beforehand. More time equals a bigger bill for you.
As in most things in life, communication is key with your lawyer. Did your client come in and pay his bill to you directly? Tell your lawyer right away, before he files that summons sitting on his desk. Your lawyer is not psychic and won’t know things you don’t tell him. Do not decide for your lawyer what is important or not for him to know. Let him do that. If you feel it’s not important or not urgent, email him. Otherwise phone him.
11. Be nice
It may surprise you that lawyers and their staff are people too. How you are billed may depend on how you treat them. I recall one of our clients who would regularly bring us baked goods. She loved baking, so it wasn’t a big deal to her. What it did mean is that we loved seeing her and I know for a fact some of the work we did for her she was never billed for.
On the flip side I know a lawyer who has a policy for irritating clients: They are relegated to the LTBW (Let The Buggers Wait) pile. So before you harass the secretary or scream at the legal assistant, consider what that may mean for your file. A smile and a thank you may accomplish a lot more.
12. Be reasonable
The most expensive cases I worked on were the ones where the client had unreasonable expectations. The best cases were where both sides didn’t get what they wanted, but were satisfied with the outcome. The cases you see in the movies where one spouse “takes the other to the cleaners” are at best rare and at worst fiction.
Let’s say you’re suing someone for $10,000.00 in damages. They counter with $8,000.00. You feel insulted and in a fit of anger reject the offer and tell your lawyer to proceed. The matter proceeds and against all odds, it’s resolved in just one court hearing. You get your $10,000.00. You also get your $5,000.00 bill from your lawyer.
13. You are the boss
One thing I have seen a few times and heard about often is when one side’s lawyer takes over the process. Then you hear several months down the line that that person didn’t really want to do x or y. That it was their lawyer that made them do it. The truth is your lawyer is working for you. You are paying for their experience and skill, but you are the one deciding what must be done or not.
14. Take your lawyer’s advice
A common complaint by lawyers, that I’ve seen in action myself, is when a client does not take their advice. Mostly what happens then is the person in question goes around and tells people it was their lawyer’s fault. A good lawyer will tell you what you need to hear, instead of what you want to hear.
People will hear from their mom/dad/barber/psychiatrist that they can get this or that result from suing someone (Advice based on all the legal shows they watched). They then go to a lawyer and hear something different. Instead of thinking: “Maybe this guy is right?” they think “What an idiot!” and shop around until they find a lawyer who will tell them what they want to hear. Then when it doesn’t pan out, they blame the lawyer.
Am I advocating you should blindly follow a lawyer’s advice if you don’t like it? No. But assume he’s right. Then do some homework or get a second opinion instead of ignoring advice you paid good money for.
15. Your lawyer is not your psychiatrist
Your lawyer is not a trained psychiatrist, counselor or financial adviser. If you’re having problems coping with the strain of your legal proceeding, see a trained professional. Your lawyer will not give you advice on how to deal with your depression or how to invest your inheritance. He may advise you on the legal aspects of any of those things, but not anything outside of that spectrum.
The problem is that most lawyers are pretty polite. Instead of making it clear they cannot advise you on such an issue, they will wait for you to finish and then tell you. Or they may assume you are planning on making some kind of law-related statement. Either way they will bill you for that time.
I trust you’ll found this advise useful and that it’ll help you save your lawyer’s time and thereby save your money.
If you have any personal experience on other ways to do this, please share it with us in the comments. If you’re a legal professional or staff member at a legal firm, feel free to share any insights you may have on how to make your work easier and thereby save a client some money.
About the Author
Anton Roder is a freelance writer with an 8 year writing background in legal writing. Despite this, he loves original, witty writing that makes people step out of their comfort zones and think a bit.