“Is Your Lawyer’s Bill Too High?”

We have written about HALT.org (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny) in previous posts and its work for transparency in attorney discipline and reporting on state bar associations’ secrecy in the handling of attorney ethics complaints.  HALT also has a number of self-help brochures on its website.  Of particular interest is HALT’s Is Your Lawyer’s Bill Too High?  How to Avoid (and Resolve) Fee Disputes.

Questioning an attorney about your bill isn’t easy, but you should not pay inaccurate or inflated charges. If you think your lawyer is charging too much, you’re not alone. State and local bar associations across the country consistently report that fee disputes are among the most frequent complaints they receive against attorneys. This brochure contains a lot of useful information about interacting with an attorney on billing procedures and fee disputes.

The brochure addresses three types of fee arrangements (flat fee, contingent fee, and hourly fee) and offers ways to avoid fee disputes (find the right lawyer, discuss fees in advance of retention, and get a signed fee agreement).  HALT also advises consumers to confront billing problems immediately, since the issue could be “a simple math error or an unintentional mistake on a bill.”  According to HALT, addressing billing issues promptly allows the attorney to resolve the issue and can salvage and fortify the attorney/client relationship.

HALT also details “Sources of Fee Disagreements”:

  • Overstaffing – Too many lawyers to a case or project just to fulfill billable hour quotas.
  • Uncompensated staff turnover – If you discover that the lawyer handling your case has moved on, you shouldn’t have to pay extra to reeducate a new lawyer about your legal matter.
  • Unnecessary research – If you are being billed for research in an area the firm already claims expertise in, question it.
  • Redundant expert witnesses and consultants – Don’t hesitate to ask why more than one (or two) expert witnesses are needed, if that’s what your lawyer proposes.
  • Uncontrolled expenses – Keep a lid on expenses by asking the lawyer to anticipate in advance what expenses will run and by including a stipulation in your agreement that you cannot be charged over the estimate without prior written approval.
  • Excessive overhead costs – Clients should challenge charges that obviously cover a firm’s routine overhead.
  • Deluxe travel and entertainment – Specify what air class you believe is appropriate. . . Make clear in advance what you will not pay for. Some examples include in-room movies, bar bills, any expense over $5 without a receipt, and laundry and dry cleaning.
  • Bill padding or overbilling – Unfortunately, some lawyers intentionally try to rip off clients by padding their bills. . . . if your lawyer charged you for more phone call conversations in a month than you have actually participated in, you need to challenge it. You should also raise questions if you are being charged at your lawyer’s hourly rate for work that is obviously clerical, or for items that seem vague.

The HALT brochure raises real-world billing issues and possible resolutions.  Legal consumers should take note.

You’ve got options.  The Center for Legal Practice Reform can help you navigate the attorney/client relationship and level the playing field.  Call LPR today for a free consultation – (301) 351-7970.

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