October 09, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“If I go to a dental office to have a bridge re-done, I don’t expect to pay for them to conduct research into dental bridge design. If I see my doctor to get a flu shot, I would never receive a bill for training the staff in how to give injections,” the e-mail from a reader in Visalia stated.
“So why, when we hired a Fresno law firm which specializes in the area of unfair competition and illegal business practices, should we pay them to spend hours conducting legal research into our problem, which is precisely what they deal with?
“We were referred to this firm by our business lawyer. He described them as specializing in unfair competition type cases – just what is happening to us. We had two super salesmen, each earning $150,000 a year but a few months ago, we noticed odd behavior from them both. They were constantly angry, upset with everyone and we just could not figure out what was wrong. Then, one day, they never returned to work.”
“Days later, phone calls from customers began pouring in, all with the same story; they were asked to leave us and go with these two thieves who had just started their own business. We quickly learned that before leaving us, they raided every bit of information in our computers, including customer lists, our business plan, procedures, prices – everything we rely on to maintain our position in this field. We have lost several accounts, and are more than worried.”
‘You’ve got a strong case’
“Our lawyer had an initial meeting with the Fresno law firm, briefing the attorneys on his findings to that point. Next, we all met together and agreed to hire them. They were provided with all employment-related documents and evidence we had acquired up to that time.
“We were assured that our position was strong and told this is a garden variety unfair competition/interference with contract-type of a case which they handle every day.
What do you mean 4.5 hours legal research?
“Their first bill included 4.5 hours [for] legal research! If a client hires a law firm for a matter which is in their area of specialization, what justifies the need for any time spent in legal research? After all, that’s what these attorneys claim they do – handle cases just like ours. I do not want to feel that we’re being taken advantage of simply because we have the money to finance what could be an expensive lawsuit. We don’t want to fire them unless it is necessary. What should a client in our situation do?”
USC law professor Alexander S. Polsky knows exactly how my reader feels. Polsky lectures for the state bar on ethical billing practices and served on the fee arbitration committee. He is regarded as an expert in this area of the law.
“When we go to an expert, we have an expectation that they know everything, but often they do not. While a lawyer or law firm may indeed specialize in certain areas, it is still critical to know how current law applies to the client’s specific case,” he said.
“Before telling the client to dedicate significant financial resources to what could be complex litigation, lawyers have an obligation to determine if the facts of this case justify going further. You do that through legal research.”
“Your readers should not just assume they are being taken advantage of, as this is a fairly common situation, and the real challenge is communication,” he points out, adding, “and it is here where many lawyers fail to inform the client in advance there was going to be research and given an opportunity to approve a maximum amount of time.”
“At the outset, it would have been nice to have told the client the estimated time required to see if his facts matched current law. When you take your car to a dealership, they consult the job-cost book, usually provide a verbal estimate, but will not touch the vehicle until a signed estimate is completed. That way, the chance for big surprises – and bad feelings – are greatly reduced. That’s something which the legal profession needs to address,” he suggests.
Lawyer’s bills can be confusing
“Confusing bills are easily avoided if how the lawyer bills is set out on the retainer, explained and a budget is established. Most property managers usually have a $500 limit and must ask the owner for permission to go beyond that. Clients have a right to be involved in any decision which will substantially influence the quality of representation or the cost,” the USC law professor concluded.
There is a right way to leave an employer and go into the same business without getting sued, and that’s our subject next week.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.