Attorney Fees And Billing

One thing that everyone should consider during the progression of their case is the effect their actions have upon their attorney’s fees. I routinely find during a case many people become insecure for whatever reason and decide that they need to discuss the details with their attorney over and over again. Depending on how busy your attorney is at any particular time, most attorneys I know will be glad to talk with a client many times, even if they are going over the same ground. The detriment to the client of this is the billable time which will cause their attorney’s fees to skyrocket.

Another way I see that people run up their legal fees is when they have asked an attorney a question, have been given a definitive answer, and then the client will keep asking the same question hoping that the law or the attorney’s opinion will change. For example, “I have been married for 20 years and my wife has not worked the last 15 years and there has been no sexual misconduct. Why do I have to pay alimony when she is capable of getting a job just like me?” This is really an open and shut case where the supporting spouse has to pay alimony to the dependent spouse for some period of time under the Laws of North Carolina. Skipping for a moment the possibility of negotiating some kind of cash deal, continually arguing with your attorney about a well-established legal precedent is an easy way to add hours to your bill and obtain nothing. The fact that this type of behavior is so common is a never-ending source of surprise.

Another way that people increase their costs is by paying an attorney, consulting with that attorney on an issue, getting the attorney’s legal opinion or advice, and then doing exactly the opposite of the attorney’s advice, or doing whatever they were going to do in the first place. A common example of this is when a man is advised that continuing to reside in the marital home while the marriage falls apart is in danger of being accused of Domestic Violence and yet he stays. I have repeatedly given advice to get away from the situation. I do not care if the man wants possession of the house. They are at risk if they remain in the house alone with their spouse, especially if they are arguing. The reason for this is that in today’s society, Domestic Violence actions are quite common and regularly misused in order to gain an advantage in Family Court.

Recently, on separate occasions, I had consultations with and advised three different men in advance that they were at risk for being accused of Domestic Violence. The funny and sad fact is that all three of those gentlemen had court dates for Domestic Violence on the same day. When they chose to disregard my advice, those decisions resulted in substantial increases in attorney’s fees incurred and greatly worsened their position in their Domestic cases.

Sometimes clients directly increase their attorney’s fees by failing to produce documents, witness lists, and/or information to the attorney in a manner that is easily convertible for the attorney’s use. Simply calling and saying that you will bring the information at a future date is a sure way to increase your attorney’s fees by forcing the attorney to call to follow-up. Failing to produce necessary financial records and the attorney having to follow-up with repeated phone calls and/or letters may delay your hearing because you are not ready is a very common way that clients unnecessarily increase their costs.

Finally, an alarming trend I see in Domestic cases is that when the client runs up their attorney’s fees beyond their initial Retainer, they seem reluctant to pay for the continuation of the case thinking that they have already paid the Retainer and it should cover the whole case. This is similar to paying your doctor for setting a broken leg and thinking that should cover the treatment for subsequent back problems that result. In this instance, the attorney has no choice but to withdraw and the client must go it alone or start over with a new attorney.

Not paying your attorney’s fees in a timely fashion places your attorney in an interesting predicament. It seems that many clients believe that by paying their initial attorney’s fees, their attorney will simply continue to blindly work and not get paid any further. Also clients, upon the completion of the case, either do not pay their outstanding balance if they do not like the results, or just disregard the bill because they feel they should have gotten the case cheaper anyway. I have tried various methods of dealing with this in the past.

  1. I have gone ahead and completed the case and then relied on the honesty of my client to pay me. This has produced spectacularly unsuccessful results.
  2. I have tried finishing the case and then demanding the client pay me. If the client does not pay their bill, I have no choice but to sue them. This has gotten better results, although it is amazing how many clients who are very happy with the results as long as they do not have to pay for them, begin complaining about everything from the length of time it took to finish the case all the way down to the number of pages the Judge used to write the Final Order.
  3. The option that I am currently using is that if clients refuse to pay their bill as requested during the duration of their case, I simply notify them, give them an opportunity to rectify the situation, and if they do not pay the bill, I withdraw. The problem for most clients is that this leaves them somewhere in the middle of a case without an attorney and forces them to go hire another attorney who sometimes uses different strategies or styles in the prosecution of the case and thereby causes the client to pay even more attorney’s fees.
  4. The worst option is when clients try to do their case alone hoping for the best.

It is not lost on me that most folks who come and hire me after leaving another attorney routinely point out how the prior attorney badly mishandled their case. Sometimes this is absolutely true and sometimes this is merely the way the person is justifying in their mind why they did not meet their obligations to the other attorney. As a practical matter, I will not accept any work from a client who has had two or more previous attorneys in the same case.

One thing that I find truly amazing is that people will hire an attorney for a contested case, go through a hard-fought trial with witnesses and evidence in front of a Judge where the other side is doing their very best to win, and if they lose the case for any reason, they simply blame the attorney for doing something wrong. This is regardless of the facts of the case or what the witnesses said or did not say and what the client themselves caused to happen.

Finally another thing that is truly a window into human behavior is when a client demands on making some kind of agreement against the attorney’s advice or without legal advice, then when the agreement backfires or falls through as the attorney warned, the client either expects to not pay for the attorney’s services and representation while the agreement was entered against the attorney’s advice, or expects the attorney to fix it for free.

FACTORS THAT INCREASE THE COSTS OF A CLIENT’S CASE
WHICH ARE BEYOND THEIR CONTROL

  1. Court scheduling. As everyone knows the court system has more cases then they can handle for any one court date or court session. Many times the factors in the case demand that the attorney and the client take the steps to issue Subpoenas and be prepared in advance of a court date. Then the court date comes and the case is not reached. This is of course a source of great frustration and anger for many clients as they have paid their attorney to get ready and they want their case done and over with. Unfortunately this is something that is often unavoidable and sometimes exploited by the other party.
  2. The opposing attorney. Often times the way the opposing attorney chooses to pursue a case effects the amount of attorney’s fees that are incurred by clients. Does the attorney on the other side provide the information as required under the Rules in a timely fashion or does the client’s attorney have to file Motions to get discovery responses or Affidavits that are overdue?
  3. Experts and Witnesses. Experts and witnesses have their own lives and their own schedules. Often they are necessary for a case but unavailable on the scheduled court date. The case then must be continued to the chagrin of the client.

MONEY-SAVING STEPS

  1. Be smart and listen up front is one of the best ways to save money in a case. If you follow your attorney’s advice, most times you will save yourself a lot of heartache, time, trouble, and money. It is okay to ask questions if you do not understand, but disregard your attorney’s advice at your own peril.
  2. Be prepared when you meet with an attorney. Think of questions in advance and write them down. Bring documents with you to your attorney’s office. Having the material organized saves hours and dollars.
  3. Having forms and documents completed and ready by deadlines saves money.
  4. Talking to your witnesses and telling them to expect to hear from your attorney in advance can save money.
  5. Having witnesses’ names, addresses, and telephone numbers written down for your attorney.
  6. Keeping your attorney up-to-date on developments both good and bad in your case saves time and money.
  7. Telling your attorney the whole story up front, good and bad, with complete facts may make the first or second interview longer, but can save time and money in the long run.
  8. Make sure your expectations and demands are reasonable and supported by the facts and law applicable to your case. If you want to go to the moon, expect your bill to look like it came from NASA.
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