For most, if not all, clients, minimizing the expense of litigation or other legal services is one of the top priorities. What many fail to do, however, is to take positive steps to help realize that goal. Sometimes this can be attributed to highly charged, emotional situations in which it is difficult for the client and make it hard to think about the simple things like “how much is this going to cost me?” More often than not, though, this failure is simply the result of not knowing HOW they can help themselves in this regard. Here are 6 key tips to help you keep your legal fees down.
1. Read and Understand the Fee Agreement
The fee agreement is a contract entered into by the client and the lawyer or law firm, and it should be very clear about what charges the client is responsible for, how those charges are calculated, and how they are supposed to be paid. Do not be afraid to ask questions if there is something you don’t understand or is not worded clearly. If you are not satisfied with the attorney’s answers, perhaps that is a signal that you should look for representation elsewhere or at least ask another attorney to review and explain the agreement to you before you sign it.
2. Ask about Alternative Billing Methods
Rightly or wrongly, the standard legal billing method is by the “billable hour.” Attorneys charge clients for the time dedicated to working on their cases and that time is multiplied by the attorney’s hourly rate. Increasingly, however, lawyers and firms are offering alternatives to the billable hour. Before you hire your attorney ask him or her if your case would be appropriate for either “flat-fee” or “contingency” consideration.
3. Consider a Limited Representation
For many disputes that are not yet in the litigation/arbitration stage, one option I have found many of my clients to appreciate is the opportunity to hire our firm on a “limited representation” basis. In this kind of representation, the client hires the attorney to perform very specific services, which are explicitly listed in the fee agreement, such as drafting and mailing a demand letter to a debtor; preparing and recording a deed or other document with county offices; reviewing and providing advice regarding a contract. the attorney is then not responsible for handling potentially related issues that the client deems unimportant. this type of representation can then be handled hourly, flat-fee, or contingent.
4. Know if your Attorney Uses MBI’s
Many lawyers use minimum billing increments (MBI’s) to make up for the negative impact on productivity that interruptions can have when one client’s matter necessarily takes attention away from another. MBI’s are a set minimum amount of time for which a client is charged for an activity regardless of how long the activity actually took for the attorney to perform. The most common example is for emails and phone calls, where it is fairly standard practice to bill clients a minimum of 0.1 hours (six minutes), 0.2 hrs (12 mins), or even 0.25 hrs (15 mins) for each phone call or email to or from the attorney, even if that phone call lasted only a minute or two, or even less. Also common are MBI’s of 1 hour for court appearances and of 0.1 or 0.2 hours per page for drafting legal documents.
5. Prioritize and Consolidate your Questions
Many clients simply do not understand the impact of their own communications with their attorney on the bottom line cost of representation, especially if MBI’s are in play.
Example: Steve hires Joan to represent him. Steve has LOTS of questions. Steve emails Joan 4 times per day, 5 days per week, for a month. If Joan’s hourly rate is $200 and her firm bills an MBI of 0.2 for each email, Steve’s bill for these emails alone is $3,200!
Before calling or emailing your attorney, ask yourself if the issue is urgent. If it is go ahead. If it’s important but not urgent, write your question or comment down for later. Once you’ve got a few notes, or the next time something urgent does come up, call or email about ALL of your issues. In our example, if Steve had emailed Joan once per week instead, his bill would potentially be as low as $160 if the answers to his questions were simple.
6. Listen to your Attorney
When you hire an attorney to represent and advise you in a matter, presumably, you do so because you intend to listen to the advice you are given. Ultimately, the client does make a lot of decisions about what is important to him or her, how he or she would like to proceed, and whether or not to settle a case, among others. If your attorney recommends one course of action and you choose another, or if your attorney advises you not to do X and you do X, you can expect your legal fees to increase. This is not because your attorney wants to punish you but because those are the natural repercussions of your decisions. In some cases, not only will your own fees increase but you may be made by the court to pay the opposing party’s fees, too. The only thing worse than paying one attorney is paying two.
In addition to these tips, don’t hesitate to ask your attorney if there are other things you can do to keep your legal fees down.
For informational purposes only and not to be relied upon as legal advice.
by Brook D. Wood