DennisBeaverMarch 29, 2014   •  By Dennis Beaver

While one of the pre-requisites for becoming a lawyer isn’t having a good sense of humor, if you ask Aaron Shechet and his wife, Leigh Chandler, these Los Angeles based attorneys will tell you that it should be.

“Especially,” as Shechet notes, “When, as Fee Arbitrators for the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bar Associations, we review attorney bills, at times you shake your head in disbelief at some of the hysterical tricks lawyers try to pull, living proof of the young lawyer on his way to court, who suddenly finds himself at the Gates of Heaven.

“St. Peter started to escort him inside, when he protested that it had to be some sort of mistake. ‘I’m much too young to die! I’m only 35!’ he shouted! ‘Yes, 35 is a bit young’ said the Saint, and agreed to check on his case.

“Returning, he told the attorney, ‘I’m afraid that the mistake must be yours, my son. We verified your age on the basis of the number of hours you’ve billed to your clients, you’re at least 108!’ ”

Business Model: Overcharge and hope your client doesn’t see it

“I wish that was only a joke, but some lawyers seem to base their practice on over-charging, hoping that most of their clients will not realize how badly they have been victimized.  We see the same issues repeatedly in very large fee disputes — which can put the attorney’s license to practice law at risk.  With fewer jobs for lawyers fresh out of school, many are opening their own offices, and may not understand proper billing practices,” Chandler notes.

“But there are lessons that both the public and lawyers can take away from fee disputes which will lessen the chance of both getting in trouble,” the couple maintain, providing these suggestions:

Before signing the retainer agreement, ask what is involved in my case? Stress that you want to be fully informed.

Both client and attorney need to ask a lot of questions of each other up front which establishes the relationship.  The client’s approach is important as it sends a message to the lawyer: “I want to understand my case.  I am involved.”

Ask how the attorney bills. Don’t hire a lawyer who avoids giving a clear answer. But be friendly — if you give the impression of not trusting the lawyer, or that every bill is going to be challenged, you risk starting the lawyer-client relationship on the wrong foot.

Don’t play games, agreeing to a certain fee, and then, once the work has been done, refusing to keep your word. You will hurt yourself.

Yes, you can read a book by its cover: Appearances matter

What does the lawyer’s written retainer agreement look like?

Is it cut and pasted, with different type styles, and makes little sense?  Does it look unprofessional and seem poorly drafted? Lawyers who have little respect for the impression their retainer agreement gives usually provide poor representation resulting in frequent fee disputes.

The sad part of this is that the State Bar has excellent, free sample fee agreements that are a great resource for lawyers and the public.

Read the retainer! If you do not understand it, have someone else read it, and if the lawyer will not let you take it home or to another lawyer, then get out of there!

If you are told, ‘sign here’ without a chance to read it, get out of there! Lawyers who do this are asking for trouble and clients who just sign are inviting their own misery.

Billing tricks

“Bills need to be itemized and not simply lump together many different services and then provide one total price.  Clients should never accept those types of ‘block bills,’ but politely insist on a break-down. Lawyers who bill that way or refuse to accommodate the client’s request are asking for trouble,” Chandler points out.“Look for ‘review file’ frequently on your lawyer’s bill. Does every five minute phone call result in a half hour charge? Does every letter or response to email have the same hour charge? Do you see charges for multiple lawyers attending some conference — if so, unless you have authorized these extra fees, complain!” she stressed.

“Local bar associations have fee dispute procedures, and it is estimated that many clients who have been overcharged are unaware of the process. Our advice is simple: If you are unable to resolve a fee issue with your attorney, contact your local bar association.

“Finally, don’t change lawyers too often too fast. Complain, be patient for an explanation. Because several lawyers on one case signals that the problem isn’t the lawyer. It’s the client.”

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