DennisBeaverJune 10, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

In a recent article I wrote about Mark, who hired a Bakersfield attorney for representation in a divorce case. Even though he has only been in private practice a few years, his hourly rate was almost $300, and he charged $145 for his paralegal, dramatically higher than reasonable or justified by his years in practice. Sub-standard work was performed, excessive hours were billed against a $4,500 “Non-Refundable Retainer,” leading to the loss of custody that Mark had of his 5-year-old son.

In reviewing the fee agreement and billing statement, gross over-billing was immediately apparent. I was able to get Mark a refund of $2,500 after one not so friendly phone call to this attorney, but what happened to Mark is not a rare occurrence. A large percentage of the public is unaware of how lawyers should bill for their services and few people understand that just because something is written in a fee agreement, this does not make it legal.

Interestingly, within days of writing my story, in May, 2006, the Journal of the State Bar of California issued an ethics advisory about “Non-Refundable-Minimum Fee” retainers which in some cases have resulted in lawyers losing their license to practice law. One of the cases was identical to that of the Bakersfield lawyer I have referred to.

Before Hiring – Take the Time To Look Around

Unless you are establishing a business, wanting to adopt, do an estate plan or looking for a patent, few people look forward to stepping into a lawyer’s office. For law is often both urgent and negative, leaving the public with a feeling that there is little time to select a lawyer. This leaves the door wide open to the worst kind of behavior imaginable. A frightened client, or family member, is just what makes it possible for morally bankrupt lawyers to get away with overcharging their clients for years.

So, how do you protect yourself? First of all, look, listen and if possible, take the time to think over if you want to hire this attorney. Bring someone with you to that first meeting. In most cases, a day or two will not matter. Begin by carefully looking at the office itself, at those things in it that communicate a professional image, or which tell you that you are in the presence of a lawyer whose ego is larger than the state of Nevada.

In Mark’s case, as I had never met his former lawyer, but his office was five minutes from mine, I drove over to pick up the refund check. Upon entering, I was visually struck by things that revealed this lawyer’s personality.

Once you step inside – and he is in practice by himself – you see his name in what appear to be 10-inch tall, gold letters across one entire wall of the waiting room. The message is clear: YOU ARE NOW IN THE PRESENCE OF A VERY IMPORTANT PERSON – A LAWYER THIS IS MY NAME. I have never seen anything more in your face before that this guy’s name across one entire wall. (Of course, he might suffer from short-term memory loss and needs to remind himself who he is!)

How About a Glass of Expensive Whine?

Most professional offices – law, accounting, medicine – have a selection of magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, Car and Driver AARP – mags of general interest. It is pretty dumb to shout, through your selection of reading material, “I earn a lot of money and can afford to drink expensive wine, fly a plane and drive a Mercedes.” But in this waiting room, there were only wine magazines – expensive magazines featuring really high end wine. You know who is paying for those subscriptions … and the wine.

When Mark first met the attorney, he was told, “You have come to the right place! She will lose badly and I can guarantee you that the custody arrangement you now have (one week with dad, one with mom) will stay the same! Just sign here….”

Anytime a lawyer – especially in a divorce – brags about how great he or she is, or that you will be guaranteed a certain result, get the heck out of there! Lawyers can’t guarantee a result, as it isn’t up to us, but rather, the judge. And when a lawyer boasts that shaky visitation arrangements will be maintained, don’t count on it.

Look around for how clean the office seems, or are there files scattered everywhere, and with the feeling of disorganization? Just remember, your file will soon be added to the heap.

As I look back across the years of law practice, it is the relationship that I have with my clients that comes to mind. Yes, I’ve made a couple of bucks as a lawyer, but more than the money, I have the chance to help, as corny as that sounds. When we, as lawyers, think of what is in the client’s best interest first, everyone benefits. Honest lawyers – and I would like to think that most are – do not see their clients as a giant cash register.

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