August 1, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver

The decision to hire a lawyer — and specifically who to hire — is often one of the most important ever, with potential consequences lasting a lifetime.

For that reason, a good attorney-client relationship is essential and should begin with a clear understanding — by both lawyer and client — of what is expected, and how much it will cost. As you will see, when clients are actively involved in their case — starting with the first meeting — the chances of receiving inferior representation or a questionable bill are greatly diminished

For this story, You and the Law spoke with Professor Rose Safarian from the San Joaquin College of Law in Fresno; and New York attorney, Daniel Abrams who specializes in legal malpractice, fee disputes and business litigation.

Don’t just sign the retainer! Ask questions

“Today most states require a signed Retainer Agreement when expected attorney fees exceed a certain amount. In California, it is $1,000,” Safarian points out.

“It must clearly explain the scope of work – what the lawyer will do, and how the client is charged. Don’t just glance at it and then hurriedly sign. You want to leave an impression about yourself that you are serious and take the time to read everything carefully, including the bill.

“Before signing, you can ask for a draft of the agreement to be reviewed by anyone you like – including another attorney. This is especially important where language skills are an issue. If refused, that’s a huge red flag,” she underscores.

“A client does not have to accept everything stated in the agreement. This should not be considered a take it or leave it proposition. Do review how you are charged and remember that clients always have the right to challenge things in the retainer agreement, and items in a bill, that do not seem to make sense,” Safarian points out.

Do not fear questioning the bill

We asked, “But if I question my lawyer’s bill, isn’t it like saying I don’t trust you? I would be afraid of being dropped and then have to find a new attorney.”

“It is not always so easy to drop a client,” she replied. “If you are in the middle of a court matter, a judge’s permission is required, which may not be given over a simple fee dispute. So, if you find something in the bill which doesn’t make sense or that you did not agree to, don’t be afraid to challenge it.

“The client actually has the upper hand. Never think that the attorney holds all the cards or that once you are into a case that you have no power. In fact, it is the client’s case, the client’s file, the client’s everything and it is the attorney’s responsibility to serve the best interest of the client,” Safarian concluded.

To attorney Daniel Abrams, the perfect formula for disappointment is a client with the attitude, “Well, I hired the attorney, he will take care of it, and I just can’t be bothered by knowing everything that’s going on.”

“The more you know, the closer you are involved in the day-to-day aspects of the case, the more difficult it will be for the attorney to drop the ball or over-bill. You want to know what is happening, and this can be through face-to-face meetings, written updates, copies of everything, whatever method, you must stay informed, ” Abrams strongly recommends.

“A good attorney-client relationship is something that evolves and depends upon regular, two-way communication. If the relationship is healthy, the bill should serve as confirmation of the type of work that the attorney is doing.”

Remain polite when asking questions about the bill

“Billing fraud exists and there is no point in denying it. But a client can minimize the chances of becoming a victim by:

  • Insisting on monthly bills;
  • Reading them as they come in;
  • Monitoring the engagement not just by looking at the bills, but through being kept up to speed on what the attorney is doing.

“The closer you monitor the case, the harder it will be for the attorney to make stuff up, and never be afraid of questioning something in a bill that you do not understand. Just call and politely ask for an explanation.

“No one wants to be spoken to in a sarcastic tone of voice. Most likely, there is a good explanation, so don’t risk upsetting yourself or your attorney by having an accusatory tone of voice,” Abrams concludes.

We should never forget that over the years and across the decades — much like a family doctor — a good lawyer becomes part of our support system, there, in the background, ready to take our call, ready to help.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.