Consumers of legal services won’t find much information online or at their public library to help them keep their costs down when they hire a lawyer. Some websites or firms might hawk their own services or materials as being a great value, or as an option far cheaper than using a lawyer, but almost no one — including bar associations and consumer groups — has compiled general tips on how to make legal services less expensive when you turn from prospective consumer to client. Therefore, when I heard a couple months ago that the legal reform group HALT published a free, online Citizen Legal Guide titled “Understanding Attorney Fees So You Can Keep Legal Costs Down” (November, 2008; 8-pp. pdf. version), I was quite pleased. Unfortunately, once I read it, my reaction to HALT’s Fee Guide was like f/k/a‘s fictional Prof. Yabut: “Yeah, but . . . “.
HALT has been working for over 30 years to achieve “Simple, Affordable, Accountable Justice for All.” f/k/a and our self-help-law sister weblog SHLEP have quoted and linked to HALT, its studies, Report Cards, and guides scores of times, beginning on our very first day of blogging in 2003. To my surprise, however, I was disappointed by HALT’s Understanding Attorney Fees ["UAF"]. It correctly advises consumers that:
“If you find yourself with a legal question, you should explore all of the options available to you and become educated about your legal question. You may actually find that you do not need to hire an attorney. . . . However, if your legal matter is complex, substantial money is at stake, you’re charged with a crime, or you’re simply uncomfortable handling legal matters on your own, you’ll probably need to hire a lawyer.”
However, for those who do need to hire a lawyer, there is simply too much left unsaid in Understanding Attorney Fees about how to keep your legal fees down. The HALT Guide does note that “As a legal consumer, your best defense against paying more than you should is to educate yourself about legal fees before signing on the dotted line.” And, it promises to explain “the most common billing arrangements used by lawyers, some new billing arrangements lawyers are using and specific ways you can lower your legal costs.”
Nonetheless, for our money, HALT’s Understanding Attorney Fees:
- Offers very little help for controlling or lowering fees that are based on an hourly rate for the lawyer’s time — not when the client is entering into an hourly billing agreement, while the services are being provided, nor when presented with a periodic or final bill.
- Takes a real dive on contingency fees, completely ignoring HALT’s own position on such fees from a decade ago, as presented in its Injured Consumer’s Legal Bill of Rights (The Legal Reformer, December 1997; issue no longer online). At that time, HALT insisted that p/i lawyers should be charging clients a lower percentage in less-risky cases, rather than using the same standard contingency fee for virtually all clients (i.e, one third or 40%). Lawyers were also required to provide the client with key information and estimates relating to risk prior to entering a fee agreement, with the information included in the signed agreement. Frankly, the contingency fee section in the UAF Guide sounds like it was ghost-written by the plaintiff’s personal injury bar. It doesn’t even mention the word “negotiate.”
- Seems to offer a blanket endorsement of “alternative” billing methods, with very little help on how to shop for such fees, and no warning that some lawyers offering alternative fee arrangements in fact intend to extract higher fees than possible when billing by the hour (e.g., so-called Value Pricing).
. . We hope consumers will read HALT’s “Understanding Attorney Fees,” but we believe the HALT staff has left too much out of its Guide. There’s no way the f/k/a Gang can create a comprehensive new draft or supplement to HALT’s publication (especially since we are moth-balling this site tomorrow). We will, however, summarize portions of HALT’s UAF Guide, suggest some tips for keeping fees down, and point to a few other helpful sources.
Consumers shopping for legal services need to remember that every kind of pricing arrangement can be exploited or misused to result in excessive fees or inadequate services. For example, hourly billing might result in a lawyer doing too much, but fixed fees can lead to lawyers doing too little, and contingency fees can make you pay far more than is warranted by the risk the lawyer is taking of not being paid or by the amount of work that will be required of the lawyer. See, e.g., our posts “other thoughtful voices on the lawyer billing debate;” and “the reality of alternate billing.” Clients need to insist on more information and lawyers need to act in ways that create trust and give full value.
First, two quick points:
- Unbundling can Save You a Bundle: With “unbundling,” the lawyer and client agree that the lawyer will only perform specific, discrete tasks. If you think you’re willing and able to play a large role in your own legal affairs, but know you want or need a lawyer to help perform “discrete tasks” and serve as advisor and coach, look into Unbundling. (see our prior post; and this posting from SHLEP for an introduction); the excerpts from M. Sue Talia‘s book Unbundling Your Divorce can help you determine if they are good candidate. Find State unbundling rules here.
- Do-It-Yourself/Pro Se: For information relating to do-it-yourself resources, see shlep: the Self Help Law ExPress [which was started by f/k/a's Editor], where you will find information on locating self-help materials, thinking about whether representing yourself makes sense for you, a Topic Index, and much more.
In “Understanding Attorney Fees,” HALT reminds consumers that “The type of arrangement you enter into can have a huge impact on the amount of fees you’ll pay, so it’s important to understand how each works and the incentives lawyers have for using them.” It explains that: