February 25, 2017 • By Dennis Beaver
The day that someone comes into our office and says, “Beav, things are great at home, the wife is happy, our kids are doing well at school, and I love my job,” I will pick up the phone and dial 911, as, clearly we’ve got a lunatic on our hands. Happy people just don’t generally walk into a lawyer’s office.
(It’s either that, or I am hearing voices and need to be taken away!)
Usually, the person who seeks an attorney is in deep trouble which, either they caused, or are a victim. If looking to get out of misery which, purposefully, through negligence or “mistake,” they caused themselves — and others in the process — some can be a real handful, making it difficult to help.
The one human quality we can all agree on is consistency. Honest, responsible people generally remain that way their entire lives.
So do irresponsible, dishonest, manipulative people.
Both types sometimes need lawyers, and both, at times, wind up in fee disputes which find their way to Bar Association Sponsored Attorney Fee Arbitration.
While there are many instances of lawyers who do overcharge, seen through the eyes of experienced attorney fee arbitrators, some high fees are the result of what the client has done, or failed to do.
Aaron Shechet, along with wife law partner, Leigh Chandler, are an accomplished legal duo frequently serving the Los Angeles County and Santa Monica Bar Associations as fee arbitrators. They are friends of this column and, as you will see, a great source of common sense for anyone involved in litigation.
“It does not matter what kind of a case it is, lawyers need their client’s help and cooperation,” Shechet stresses, adding, “A mistake we see repeatedly is looking at the lawyer as a burger flipper, just another employee, someone I am paying to do the job and I want nothing to do with the details.”
Leigh Chandler describes the characteristics of the client with a “burger flipper” mentality:
“Clients need to understand that it’s their case. The lawyer is their representative, there to help. But lacking active participation and cooperation, very good cases can easily be lost, and we’ve seen this lead to fee disputes.
“For instance, a client who fails or refuses to participate in the Discovery process which requires production of certain documents and providing written answers to questions asked by the other side. If incomplete or not submitted within a certain time-frame, Courts can and will dismiss the case.”
Shechet adds, “Just picture the frustrated lawyer whose client has a good case, but who refuses to show up for a scheduled deposition, respond to phone messages or letters and will not meet face to face, resulting in the case being lost, or merely just a total disaster and then blames the attorney!
“What is so interesting for us about being fee arbitrators is that we are conducting something like an autopsy. We learn what killed the case or the attorney-client relationship. Often, the fault lies with the attorney. But frequently, it is a client who is making the same life mistakes that got him into trouble in the first place: not dealing with the underlying problem, sticking their head in the sand and then screaming that they are being overcharged by their lawyer.”
Chandler observes, “Sometimes the client cannot or refuses to understand that lawyers earn their livelihood by selling time and advice. The client has to respect this economic reality — but a problem client might show up late for a scheduled meeting or not at all. Yet, the lawyer set aside the time.
“This will often result in a fee dispute, where the client tells the arbitration panel, ‘but we never had that meeting, so why did I get billed?’ ”
The massive amount of lawyer advertising where million dollar verdicts seem to be a given tend to distort what many people feel their case is worth or how easy it will be to win. Shechet cautions that large verdicts are not that simple:
“Fee disputes can arise from a client’s denial of the possibility of losing, and an unrealistic expectation of the justice system. Trials are not lotteries although television makes it seem so. Many factors combine to cause some clients to only see the strength and not weaknesses of the case, thinking that a trial is like a game of poker.
“Having observed numerous fee disputes and legal malpractices cases, we see two significant mistakes clients make that lead to problems. The first is a failure to listen to their lawyer’s advice — really listen and think about it. The second is a failure to follow it.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.