YOU HIRE A l a w y e r t o w r i t e up complex documents containi ng abstruse legal syntax. But an attor- ney’s bill should be easy reading. T h e r e a r e t w o m a i n w a y s
attorneys charge for their services: by the hour
or by contingency. The latter, common in personal injury and workers compensation cases,
means the attorney receives a portion of the
settlement if you win.
Some attorneys charge a flat fee for a defined
task such as drafting a document or a set
monthly fee for regular consultations.
Nothing in your bill should be a surprise,
because when you first hire a lawyer, you’ll sign
an agreement laying out the terms.
“The engagement letter should spell out not
only the rates, but how time is billed, what the
expectations are in terms of payments, and
what happens if payment is not made in a timely
manner,” says Katherine Dulany, a Bay Area
employment lawyer and litigator.
Answers to common billing questions:
What is a retainer fee? Paid at the outset of a case
and held in a client trust account, this is a prepay-ment or deposit for the services your attorney will
render. The attorney can draw on this account
instead of asking you to pay each month, draw on
the account only when bills aren’t paid on time or
just hold the fee as security.
This setup is different from having a lawyer “on retainer,” which means that you pay a
monthly fee to ensure the attorney’s availability.
How can I save on attorney fees? Anything
you can do to save your attorney time should
lower your bill.
“Provide the attorney with all the necessary documents at the beginning,” advises San
Rafael attorney Dotty LeMieux. In the tree law
cases LeMieux frequently handles, those documents might be surveys or property deeds. In
a divorce, it might be a spreadsheet showing
assets or a parenting schedule.
What if I can’t afford it? If you can’t afford an
attorney’s rate, it never hurts to ask for a discount. Even if he won’t lower his rate, an
attorney might refer you to a less expensive
colleague or a legal clinic.
Marin County Superior Court’s Family Law
Facilitator answers questions and helps people
file paperwork without a lawyer.
What else should I consider when it comes to
billing? Probably the biggest thing clients can
do to cut costs is to minimize conflict. When
t wo opposing parties work together, they can
get through court quickly or even avoid court
and settle matters through alternative dis-
“If you keep the level of acrimony [with the
other party] down, your bill will be lower,” says
San Rafael family law attorney Rachel Castrejon.
What recourse do I have if I feel my bill is
unfair? The Marin County Bar Association
runs a fee arbitration program to help clients
and attorneys settle billing disputes. For a
fee, a committee of volunteer lawyers takes
the client and lawyer through binding or nonbinding arbitration.
“They will look at the documents, review the
fees and see whether or not they’re in line with
what is customary for that type of case,” says
Mee Mee Wong, executive director of the Marin
County Bar Association. C. K.
of a Bill
What you need to know about legal
fees before you hire an attorney.
There are two main ways
attorneys charge for their services:
by the hour or by contingency.