I know his brother, you think to yourself as you sit across from the lawyer, wondering why the retainer he just quoted you didn’t seem to include any discount.
“And this retainer is no indicator of how much this may ultimately cost,” the lawyers says.
What?!? MAY? ULTIMATELY? COST? How does this work? You don’t know how many hours this will take? Why not? All these questions bounce around, but none of them make it to the tip of your tongue. Instead, you manage, “Do I need to pay you before you get started?” Thinking maybe you can see how much can be done with whatever you can scrounge up.
This story, or similar ones, unfolds in law offices around the nation regularly. This article aims to explore some of the whys and wherefores of the legal service process.
Goods and Services
When you go to a car shop, you pay for the parts and labor. When you go to the store, you pay for the goods. When you speak to an attorney, time and expertise are the parts and the goods. We don’t provide you with something tangible like food at a restaurant. What we provide is advocacy. We fight for you in a system that you don’t understand. Our judicial system is complex and sometimes harsh, so having an advocate who understands the system is hugely important. We provide counsel. These days, people like to Google everything. But Google doesn’t have the ability to see the future impact of today’s choices; Google can’t strategize; and Google can’t tell you why. Google isn’t a counselor. It merely looks things up.
Why Don’t You Know the Cost?
Some things that drive up costs are:
- Clients that want to speak constantly
- Clients that ignore advice and do things that hurt the case
- Judges ruling differently than we predict or think they should
- The other side being difficult
- Experts needed to prove certain things
There are many factors that go into how much the representation will cost at the end of the day. If hire an attorney on an hourly basis, you will only pay for the time spent on your case, which sounds nice. However, clients tend to worry about the unknown cost as fees continue to mount throughout a case. But if you pay a flat fee, you know for certain the total cost. However, when calculating a flat fee, attorneys consider all the factors listed above and more, so the fee may sound high.
Let’s pretend you have a simple lawsuit: you want to evict a tenant from your property because they haven’t paid rent in two months. You speak with a lawyer and he quotes a high retainer.
What he sees is a situation where the other side will claim facts that are different than what you say, and he’s thinking about everything he needs to do to prove your facts:
- request information from you
- spend time drafting requests for information from the other side
- request information from banks
- read through the lease and any other written communications
- learn the financial history of your interaction with the tenant
- prepare exhibits for trial to prove the existence of a contract
- hire an expert to talk about fair market value rate of rent
- draft arguments
- research caselaw for those issues that the other side will try to oppose you on
All of these things take time, and are specific to your case. It’s not like he can just go in the back and pull out knowledge of your situation the way a fast food restaurant grabs a frozen burger to grill up. He has to learn everything that he can, so that he can try to give the best advice possible, and have the best chance of winning.
On top of that, if the other side is being difficult, there will be multiple hearings before the trial just to be able to get certain kinds of information. If you want updates daily or weekly on what he thinks of the case or what has been done, that’s time that he has to spend bringing you up to speed. If you want to try to resolve things without the expense of trial at mediation or arbitration, then that takes time. And if it fails, you’re back to moving toward a trial. Also, the other side could appeal even if you win.
Suddenly the simple lawsuit doesn’t seem so simple. And that didn’t even factor in dealing with the insurance companies, if they get involved, which takes more time.
What Can You Do to Keep Things Simple?
First, get an attorney you feel comfortable with. If you trust him or her, you’re less likely to question whose best interest the attorney has in mind. Good attorneys will be mindful of the costs and will keep your best interests as their top priority. That doesn’t mean good attorneys are cheap, but they will not just do things to try to squeeze money out of you.
Second, be okay speaking with a paralegal if it’s not crucial to speak to the attorney, or be okay with emailing. Telling the attorney everything bad about the other side, or about all the ways you feel you should win usually doesn’t serve much purpose, but it takes time. Emails can be short, sweet, and to the point. The attorney will usually know what he or she needs to know and will ask for the documents or information that is important.
Third, never think of your case as a “slam dunk” or “simple” case. Just like love blinds people to the faults of others at times, so does anger or conflict blind people to the facts that hurt their case. It’s usually not as simple as you think. Work takes time, and usually there’s an attorney on the other side working to make your case harder to prove and harder to win. Even if you have a great case, every case has to be built from the ground up.
Last, follow the advice of your attorney. Sometimes they may ask for something and you’re not sure why, or they suggest an action that seems strange. You are paying for the attorney’s expert advice in your situation. Take it. Good attorneys will be direct when it’s clear that certain actions will help or hurt a situation.
Many people, even those who have been a party in a lawsuit, don’t know all that goes on to try to win their case and give them good legal advice. Hopefully this article has shed some light on why good attorneys cost what they do, and what you can do to avoid making it cost more.