May 16, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
In our two last articles, we looked at the ugly secret of how some law firms resort to completely illegal billing practices doing unnecessary work for the sole purpose of running up the bill.
As we pointed out, legal work often takes place when the client is not present, leaving the door to “creative billing” wide open. This is not to say that clients should always assume the worst, but it is healthy to have a good dose of skepticism about every bill you receive, especially, if the law firm uses “block billing.”
With block billing, different things done are simply lumped together, showing a total number of hours. The individual services are not itemized in terms of the time spent on each one. Attorneys who bill this way have gotten themselves into deep trouble with clients and the courts, as it is an invitation to bill padding. Clients deserve to know how much time their lawyer is spending on each task. In this way, there’s a basis to compare charges, identify possible problems, or ask for a reduction if something appears excessive.
We also looked at ways you can reduce the chances of these things happening, through:
(1) Understanding the importance of the attorney retainer agreement and;
(2) Realizing that clients are free to modify the retainer, for example, inserting language which will require approval before spending your money on expensive — and possibly unnecessary — legal services.
You’ve got to be pro-active
“There is so much that clients can do to assure, not just accurate billing, but an all around better relationship with their attorney and support staff,” Attorney Marc Alexander told me when we discussed these issues recently. Marc practices law in Santa Ana with Attorney Mike Hensley. They maintain a great blog, filled with tons of useful information for members of the public and attorneys on these very issues. You will find it at Calattorneysfees.com.
“You’ve got to be pro-active. If you and your lawyer communicate well, it will reduce the chances of a misunderstanding down the road. Not only for billing issues, but the entire case. It is surprising how often clients are a little afraid to openly discuss their fears, concerns about how the case is coming along, or their options,” he observes.
“Law is about relationships, about your lawyer getting a good understanding of what your needs are, financial limitations, and what you are looking for as an outcome. I know it sounds corny, but it’s all about communication — that’s so critical,” Mike stressed.
“I recommend getting together with your lawyer every so often over a cup of coffee to discuss significant events, to bring each other up to speed on where you are, not just in terms of the case, but emotionally as well,” he urges.
“I tell my clients to call me at home, and I give them windows when I am available. I want to stress, that when a client calls for an update, or drops into the lawyer’s office for a quick chat, in my opinion this should be at no charge. If anything, the more accessible the lawyer, happier will be the client.”
“A common complaint about lawyers is slowness in returning the client’s phone call — but it is a two way street, and frequently it is the lawyer who is frustrated by a non-communicative client. So, it’s a good idea to establish regular get-together sessions, in person or on the phone,” he suggests.
Finally, The Santa Ana attorneys had this one observation which could easily be the most important of all;
“Listen to your gut at the very beginning of a case. If either the lawyer or client feels uncomfortable, get out.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.