DennisBeaverDecember 28, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

When you hire an attorney, it’s normal to expect that your case will be competently handled and that you will be fairly billed for the lawyer’s time. Last week, we began a look at being billed, in our Hanford reader’s words, “$150 for simply asking about the status of my case — how it was coming along.”  

He is represented by one of two attorneys in his town whose billing practices, in our opinion and that of experts with whom we have consulted, can only be described as predatory.

But could that charge be justified? We’ll tell you in a moment, but first, have you ever considered how to keep your lawyer sane, and what lawyers need and have a right to expect from clients?

Tell me everything

If you thought, “promptly paying the bill,” while that’s close, the answer begins much earlier, in the opinion of two attorneys we spoke with who are considered by the American Bar Association as experts in legal ethics and professional responsibility They are Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based Seth Rosner and Michael Downey, who practices law in St. Louis.

“The first thing the lawyer has a right to expect from every client is honesty,” Rosner firmly maintains.

“Clients want us to believe them and often do not tell us things that we need to know if we are to help. I need you to tell me everything, not what you think I need to know, but everything about your case.

“Sometimes getting the whole story can be like pulling teeth, not necessarily because the client is dishonest, but because they might not see the importance of certain facts or events and simply not mention them.

“Never forget that the last place any lawyer wants to be is in court when the real story comes out,” Rosner stressed.

Downey agrees, explaining the importance of telling all of the circumstances at your first meeting, and he gives this speech to all of his clients:

“Generally, the first time you tell me the case, this is the best that it is going to be. It is closer in time to the event, so your memory will be better than months down the road. Of course, at this stage, I haven’t heard from the other side yet, haven’t done any investigation and have not formed an opinion.

“So, this is the time when you are really able to tell me your view of the facts. I am going to do a great deal of research and probably find that there is a lot more to this that you have been aware of, or have told me. It is the rare case that gets better, so the more accurate and thorough you are with me now, we are both better off.”

You pay your auto mechanic, right?

“Following honest communications, paying the bill on time and showing up for appointments is really essential to a good professional relationship. Lawyers go out of their way for clients who are considerate of their time and who promptly pay,” Rosner finds.

Downey uses the example of taking your car to a garage for repairs.

“You would never take your car to the garage, have them repair it and then, without paying, say thanks and drive off! So often clients treat their lawyers that way by acting in a manner which says, ‘I appreciate the advice and now I am not going to pay you for it.’ Having this kind of an attitude is shortsighted, as it will cost you a good lawyer.”

And our reader’s $150 bill?

“How much time was spent with your reader during that phone call?” Rosner asked.

“Was it a question that called for a quick yes-or-no type of answer — just taking up a couple of minutes? If so, most lawyers would not bill for that. Was it a detailed briefing on the case? Was the attorney given additional information? These things can easily take 20 minutes or more.

“As a lawyer’s inventory is time, then it is reasonable to charge for those longer types of phone calls,” he concluded.

So what did out reader and his attorney discuss and how long were they on the phone?

“We talked about possible court dates, reviewed a number of documents, and some testimony for around a half an hour or so.”

As it was more than just the “status” of the case, what’s fair is fair, and we felt that he needed to pay the bill now.

“Especially if you are generally satisfied with his representation,” we told our Hanford reader, “and are deep into the case, this is not the time to damage your relationship and to go looking for a new attorney if you get ‘fired’ over $150.”

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