I feel like my lawyer is overcharging me. How do I best handle this?

QUESTION:

I really like my lawyer. She is excellent, and the law firm is well respected. That said, I feel like my lawyer is overcharging me for the work done? How do I best handle this? I don’t want to ruin our relationship.

ANSWER:

Ethan Stone

Ethan Stone

by Ethan Stone, Stone Business Law

My first inclination is to tell you to pay happily. Lawyers are worth every penny they charge. They deserve to be paid in full and on time!

That’s not very helpful, however.

So speaking as a lawyer (and not yours), I think the first thing you need to keep in mind is that if you like your lawyer and the service you’re getting, you don’t want to do anything that will make you a “problem client.” We try to give our best work to every client, of course, but we’re human and we’re under economic pressure to collect our bills. So if your lawyer starts thinking of you as a client who is constantly griping, haggling and delaying payment, that might unconsciously affect the relationship and possibly even the work in ways you should try to avoid.

So how do you deal with the problem without becoming a “problem client.” That depends to some extent on why you think the charge is too high. I’m assuming, since you say you like the lawyer, that you don’t think she’s padding her hours. And I’m also assuming you don’t have any kind of “flat fee” arrangements with her. So it probably boils down to a feeling that too many lawyers are spending too many hours to do work that should take less.

If that’s the nature of the problem, the best way to deal with it is to call the lawyer, tell her that your legal expenses have been running higher than your budget, and ask if you can talk to her about ways you might be able to streamline things. The point is not to accuse her of charging you too much or to get into a fight about hours already recorded. That will make her annoyed or defensive. Rather, try to get her thinking about ways to help you get things under control. She knows better than you do what’s going on and why, so she’s in a better position to come up with effective ways to control the hours. When you put your heads together, for example, you might find that the lawyers have been doing things for you that you could really do yourself, just to try and be helpful (or because you asked them to without thinking through how much it would cost).

Bear in mind that once your lawyer and her colleagues enter hours into the firm’s billing system, they show up as accounts receivable on the firm’s finances. So her partners will see it if you force her to write down lots of hours that have already been booked. At best, that will annoy her. At worst, it could be a serious internal problem for her. So if I were you, I would pay your most current bill in full right before you have the conversation about getting things under control (again, assuming you don’t think you were actually billed in error or for work that shouldn’t have been done at all). That will clearly signal that you’re looking for help in managing legal costs, not trying to get retroactive discounts on work already done.

I hope this helps. Legal work always costs more than you think it should (that’s how I feel when I’m the client, anyway), but there should be ways to keep it within acceptable limits.

Comments & Advice:
  1. Mike says:

    Lawyers exist for 1 reason, to profit from STUPIDITY. Think of every dollar that you spent for legal representation and the stupid factor involved. In this capitalist society, there is always someone to gain from ones unfortunate cirmcumstances no matter how tainted with stupidity they may be. Please be smart and eliminate stupid people from your circle.

  2. Mike says:

    Layers exist for 1 reason, to profit from STUPIDITY. Think of every dollar that you spent for legal representation and the stupid factor involved. In this capitalist society, there is always someone to gain from ones unfortunate cirmcumstances no matter how tainted with stupidity they may be. Please be smart and eliminate stupid people from your circle.

  3. Greg says:

    My son was arrested and charged with a crime. I called an attorney and had him go to the jail and meet with him (he was not there) he then went the court house where he told my son that he probably would not get a bond….he did after my son explained everything to the attorney and then to judge. I had told the attorney over the phone that I would hire him to help my son. He worked for him for 2hrs and did nothing, no arguing, every question asked was given to my son and relayed by the attorney to judge. For this he kept my $3500 retainer that I gave him and said that if he had not gotten my son a bond (for which he never asked the judge, the judge just said out loud that he would give bond. I feel that this lawyer grossly over charged me for this 10 mile drive and two hours of his time. Am I wrong here? I plan to meet with him and ask him for a partial refund (I said keep 2000 and give me back 1500 at a minimum) and he says he is keeping the 3500. I plan to go to the State Bar and ask for arbitration of the fees kept by this lawyer. After a few days out of jail I hired/retained a very experienced criminal lawyer instead of this lawyer who has had 5 of the cases that we are facing. He refuses to give me a dime back.

  4. There was a Snake and a Lawyer dead on the highway,,,the Snake had fifteen feet of skid marks in front of it,,,,the Lawyer had none,,,,,ok, you figure it out,,,

  5. DB43 says:

    In many jurisdictions there is a method in place to “tax” a lawyer’s bill. The client submits to a taxation officer who then reviews the lawyer’s bill. It is a common occurrence that the bill is then reduced. That is the best method to proceed but you will likely not get that lawyer to do any work for you in the future.

    In regards to (not response to) Ethan Stone’s comments: Yes, lawyers charge a lot of money and yes running a law practice is expensive for the lawyer and accounts for some of that cost. And yes, lawyers still make piles of money, true. The real problem you face is that someone out there will be willing to pay your lawyer the amount of money he/she wants to be paid to do the same work you need. If you are not willing to pay the lawyer will just move on to someone who is so it’s a no win for you if you want an ongoing relationship.

    Remember, despite that people call them rats and much worse, lawyers are highly skilled professionals who are, unfortunately for most of us “have nots”, able to charge the “haves” who can afford to pay lawyers to get the job done right. When some one is paying a million dollars for a business they will pay a lawyer 50k to make sure it goes right.
    Just like anything else it is unreasonable for anyone to expect that a lawyer is going to do anything for anyone for less than they could get elsewhere.

    Related to other posters many personal injury matters, the plaintiff’s lawyer works on a contingency fee arrangement and receives a portion of the monies recovered. Contingency fee arrangements usually are 30% to 40% and they often increase the longer the matter goes on. For example, if the matter settles prior to questioning or deposition the lawyer may take 25% and this will go up to 35% the second questioning is completed. This arrangement is always agreed to beforehand, so don’t cry if you feel there isn’t enough settlement money coming your way after you agreed to the arrangement. Furthermore, getting a lawyer to work on contingency is about as close to getting someone to work for free as you can get because the lawyer is carrying the risk that he/she might not get anything if there is no victory. If you don’t like that arrangement then don’t go on contingency pay the hourly rate. If you can’t afford that and don’t want to use a contingency arrangement then you are actually expecting someone to work for free and that’s not reasonable.

    Regarding the comment about lawyer’s sticking together, while that might always not be true, it is certainly true with settlement proceeds, sale proceeds, etc. No lawyer will ever agree to have the settlement proceeds paid directly to the client because then they might not get paid. And, as a courtesy most lawyers will pay the settlement proceeds to the plaintiff’s lawyer in trust. That is a battle you will never win.

    Most jurisdictions require that the lawyer and client have an agreement as to fees and services in place at the beginning of the relationship. It’s just like any other business negotiation. You may want to sell your car and no matter how much you think it’s worth you gotta get the buyer to agree to pay that amount. At some point the buyer will have a limit as to what he wants to pay. lawyers are the same. they won’t work for free but given the chance they aren’t going to leave money on the table. Estimates and quotes, like in any other business, are bullshit, but even more so in the legal profession because there are so many variables that can affect the amount of work to be done.

    Really, the only way to be sure is to get the fee negotiated right up front for what you want done. If you are selling/buying a business, assets, shares, etc. agree to a percentage of the total cost you are comfortable with (not too much now 🙂 If your lawyer won’t play ball on that then you need to find one who will.

    Otherwise you going to get stuck paying the piper way more than you want.

  6. just joe says:

    I think its amazing that the lawyers all stick up for each other without even looking at facts, its doesn’t surprise me that we have such corrupt individuals on so many levels in this country. I was executor on my aunts will and was billed an enormous amount of money. This is a shame that a person who calls themselves professionals and are to have a code of conduct, will screw people over every chance they can and literally bleed you dry like leeches. Lawyers will bill you for work they do over due to their mistakes, bill you for every possible minute they can as long as they feel you have money to pay them, truly terrible, money hungry people. I hope through out my days I never have the need for such individuals.

  7. joe schmoe says:

    interesting discussion and even more interesting that most attorney’s posts recommend interaction in favor of attorneys.Some more sugar coated than others,however in my view still lean in favor of producing income for attorney’s than fairness and justice for a client.Courts only contribute to that by requiring the average citizen,and attorneys,to jump thru hoops to bring cases to be heard. My fiance was paralegal for a number of firms for many years and am familiar with billing practices. I loved the law courses i took in college and recognized that it could do so much to help the common man, however my experience from the inside is many attorney’s are more concerned with maintaining their lifestyles and inflating their egos than justice.Sure their are a few good ones but they seem harder and harder to find these days.When i see people getting billed $150 to forward an email,attorney’s charging for their mistakes,avoiding clients ‘cuz they don’t have it together, or prioritizing clients because they don’t have the same deep pockets, i begin to feel the term for justice should be changed to “just us”

  8. Every company that purchases legal services should have Legal Billing Guidelines that outlines how the company can be charged, and this suggestion applies even more so to companies that hire big law firms.

    Insurance companies are probably the biggest purchasers of legal services and they have been using Legal Billing Guidelines for years. Large companies also use Legal Billing Guidelines. They use them because they work.

    Investors, startups, and emerging companies should all implement and use Legal Billing Guidelines to help manage and control legal expenses. The law firms may balk, but they are already seeing this from the insurance carriers and their larger company clients.

    Don’t worry about offending them, the law firms desperately want to retain their clients and they know that the competition for your work is fierce.

  9. aw says:

    Great now I’m even more fearful of obtaining one.

  10. SuckerPunched says:

    What a bunch of CRAP! “Problem client?” GIVE ME A BREAK! “My first inclination is to tell you to pay happily. Lawyers are worth every penny they charge. They deserve to be paid in full and on time!” Could you be anymore arrogant and condescening? Could you be anymore transparent?

    When an attorney gives you an estimate of expenses, and he goes over by 100%, that is misrepresentation of services and fees! As someone else said, “There is a special place in hell for lawyers.”

  11. Misnomer says:

    My attorney is billing me for work he did after I ended service with him. Last September 24th, I notified my attorney that I no longer required his services and asked for an all-inclusive final bill. My attorney told me the next bill would be final, and I would receive that bill in the mail. October 16th I received a letter in the mail from my attorney thanking me for using his services. The first week of December (after cashing out my retirement funds) I asked my lawyer again what the final bill was and if there were additional fees because I was going to pay him on my lunch break. My attorney told me the amount, I paid them on lunch, and almost a month later I received another bill in the mail. My attorney is saying it is for services that happened on October 24th, a court date to file paperwork, and the reason it wasn’t included in the final bill amount was because his billing department was two months behind schedule.

    Am I required to pay this?

  12. Jon says:

    I have lawyer friends and I had the pleasure of worked with lawyers. And I can tell you don’t want to hear what lawyers think about their clients! Now you lawyers here, you know what I am talking about. Anyway, lawyers that charge for their work and service should get paid but not for sitting in a courtroom for 3 hrs only to give me 10mins at the end. Especially when the lawyer has misadvised and misrepresented me and drags his feet instead of taking course of action. I am thinking that like lady lawyer here economy is bad and attorney are being more creative by purposely creating more work for themselves. And you can see the signs clearly when your lawyer specializes in an area but waits for you to figure it out instead and lets you talk up a storm etc.

  13. Brenda says:

    I my case, I sat with an attorney before we started anything and discussed what an uncontested divorce with a quadro would cost. We agreed that it would be $500 for the divorce and between 275 and 300 for the quadro because it was a form that basically had fill in the blanks. Also I would pay the filing fees which would run around $200. Several times I asked my attorney if we where staying on budget and was told yes, things where easilier than expected. Now I have received my final bill and she wants $1675. She states she discounted the bill $300, but she had more time in researching the wording for the alimony part of the divorce…what do I do about this bill…I don’t feel it is fair to charge me more than what we agreed on.

  14. gina says:

    Good advice from many. It’s unfortunate that the advice given is only after learning the hard way. For 5 months I was being overcharged by the legal assistant. I only discovered it after she was replaced by another legal assistant. Both LA charge the same hourly rate but previous LA charged twice as much time for same service. 12 minutes at $150/hr to copy and mail one sheet of paper?? There should be a price list given to clients to better understand how much time is charged for specific work done. Yes, I did think that was excessive but I just assumed that is what it costs. Until the new legal assistant only charged me 6 minutes at $150/hr to copy and mail one sheet of paper. Hate my lawyer. Hate my first legal assistant. Hate lawyers. they have no heart.

  15. A. Nonymous says:

    Why do dishonest and untrustworthy people so frequently become lawyers? Is it because one must have no scruples to be a lawyer in the first place?

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  17. Ernie says:

    Some lawyers thrive/feast on the MISERIES and MISFORTUNES of others. An attorney first represents himself or herself, and then they represent their firm and lastly they will represent you as long as you can pay. I was named as a defendant in a case that never should have been filed. I was sued as trustee of a trust. The trust existed for 7 years and was due to expire in 6 months. I was accused of not filing professional accountings and stealing money from the trust. My accountings were informal in order to save the trust the annual accounting fees. I complied and had a CPA provide the accountings for all of the previous 7 years. There was no money missing. The lawyers kept the case alive for a year and a half after the trust expired by kicking the can back and forth. The plaintiffs attorney insisted on taking the case all the way to court even though he knew there was no grounds for the suit. In the beginning I asked my attorney how much this case would cost if it went all the way to court. He told me $20,000 to $25,000. When his costs exceeded that amount I questioned him. He told me that the $20 – $25,000 was only an estimate. When I told him to stop he kept biling telling me that he couldn’t stop because he had an obligation to the court. When I told him I didn’t have any more money he dropped me. He had billed over $42,000 and we hadn’t even gone to court yet. I went to court WITHOUT an attorney and the court found in my favor. Don’t believe the myth; “Never go to court without an attorney.” All trust monies were accounted for. The judge allowed the lawyers on both sides to collect their fees from the trust. My attorney was denied $6,000 in fees because the judge said his billing hours and billing rate was excessive for this case. The Judge would not allow me to collect $14,000 in out of pocket fees I paid my attorney with my own money. Nor would the judge allow me to collect a reason trustee fee allowed under the law. I had not taken a trustee fee for the 7 years I acted as trustee. I appealed and the judge denied my appeal. I question the character, integrity, values and honor of those lawyers involved as well as the judge. The judge, a former attorney took care of his kind and punished me … an honest man.
    Not all lawyers are bad. I had one attorney that knew of the case and provided me legal counsel without billing me …. he knew that my case lawyers were overcharging me. I had another lawyer write up my appeal and didn’t charge me because he also knew I was being taken. I have the greatest respect for both of these honorable gentlemen.

  18. Bob says:

    What a pathetic reply. Thieves certainly stand together. My attorney is charging me up to 10X the amount he and his staff are investing in a billable event. For example, my phone record proves I spent less than 2 minutes on the phone while he simply told me to send a record. He billed me .25 hours (15 minutes-$112.50) for that call. That would make his effective hourly rate $3,375 when $450 is his advertised rate. A legal assistant in his office who “participated” in that call (even though she was not required and didn’t say a word) was billed for the same 15 minutes at $150/hour. He bills a minimum of .25 hours if he even sneezes in your direction. I have many other billing events like this that I am just now discovering. My X is going after a measly 20% more than our Decree orders, just because she wants more money. My attorney is over charging me up to 5-10 times the work he and his staff are producing. Who should I be more afraid of? Attorneys have a license steal, and no doubt, they do. The legal system is corrupt. Be aware and watch your wallet very closely.

  19. Mafalda says:

    I think most of the Lawyers the bigest thief in the world, and the worse in tne USA.
    threat the client they will drop the case if the client askto many questions, or express the frustrationof been taking bentage by the lawyer.Is very little of Onesty in the Law pratise in the USA, so for me what you recomending to peoplesis to keep be part of a Corrupt Juducial Sistem.

  20. Brad says:

    You sound like a shmuck – no offense. I’m a CPA who has done extensive work for and with attorneys. Take if from me: not all, but many lawyers and accountants size up the client and then see how far they can “push the envelope” with billing. They tend to do this with people who are naive and unsophisticated or people who seem to overly impressed with their “credentials”.

    Smarten up. There are over 1 million lawyers in the U.S. today. Let your current attorney know that you know this.

  21. cheryl ammons says:

    The comment from the lawyer above, “Pay happily, and gladly”, makes me SICK. Lawyers soak you for every penny they can get because they know you are desparate. They don’t give a damn about you….only your money. The second you run out of money they dump you…but not before sticking you with extraneous charges that you MUST pay, or they will use all of their legal omnipotence to SUE YOU!!! Lawyers….especially “family law” practitioner’s have NO SOUL….And yes, they ALWAYS stick together. There is a special Hell for lawyers.

  22. There are services out there that specialize in reviewing legal bills for overcharges. Check out Anastasia & Alexander for more information (website is reviewbilling.com).

  23. mandy mojica says:

    When your lawyer receives 2/3rds of the settlement money and you as the client only receives 1/3rd. I think it’s highway robbery..what was the point of the suite, who did it teach a lesson to? Not the company that did them wrong, and certainly not the lawyer that robbed the elderly but my parent’s learned the lesson that the elderly have no place trusting lawyers cause they are as crooked as the people my parents were suing. But of course no lawyer will ever say he over charges…

  24. Andrew says:

    Are you kidding me. A lawyer is just like a plumber or any other service provider. However they have a great amount of power. Its a conflict of intrust that one who guides the case and the bill will not do so in the favor of the one who collects the money. I ve had a few attorneys. Attorneys have a legal one up on an average individual, I mean what if the attorney is dirty? What are you going to do sue em. Problem client really? That just go to show it is true. The legal system is a monopoly. Clients should pay a reasonable amount to their attorney for their work. Who’s to say if one attoney is lazy and the next is not how do rate that hour?

  25. Harold says:

    I was involved in a VCAT case where the lawyer stated in response to a request for an estimate. The total figure will be $X,000 this includes appearance at the compulsory conference.

    At the compulsory conference, having paid 80% of the $X,000 to date, whilst we considered an offer of settlement of 9 times $X,000 he informed us that his work in progress was 1.8 – 2 times $X,000. The case settled.The lawyers agreed the settlement would be paid into our lawyers trust account by the lawyers for the other party.

    When the settlement was received we received a fee further fee which made the total fee of 3.5 times $X,000. They deducted the fee and dispersed the balance of fees from the trust account.

    The firm is a city law firm and stated, “that’s the fee”. Warning – never let a settlement be paid into the lawyers trust account.

    There was never any warning the fee would exceed the original estimate. We asked for a copy of the firm’s time records and these disclosed the major portion of the blow out occurred in the 2 months prior to the compulsory conference and yet, we were never told and the lawyer was aware of it.

  26. ken says:

    there has to be some place through the Bar that a lawyer can be made to accopunt for there dealings, something about tipping or taxation or some cluase lke that

  27. ken says:

    nice to see how all the lawyesrs stick together. my case is being takin for all i have for no reason in a split of a comonlaw relationship, i,m a 64 yr. old pensioner , she a 50yr con. now 3 court cases, posponment twice( she refused to produce her paperwork) 3rd court day, she didn,t show up, case thrown out, less than 30 minutes in time total= 8,000. now she,s redoing it in queens bench, all the same demands redone 10,000 mre charges and we haven,t gone to court yet, and they get mad when i ask why, and told to go somewhere else if i don,t like it, i,m getting raped by my lawyer and despritly need help

  28. Soody says:

    I agree, at least in part, with all that is said. One critical thing to remember is that “overcharging” is a “state of mind” … let me elaborate … it depends on what you want, the value of that item to you, and how it is delivered. Often, because the work-product is a written document, people don’t put the same value to it as a gadget they can touch and feel.

    Now, with that said, there is always a difference between “cheap” and “inexpensive.” I learned that a long time ago from a jeweler 🙂

    As an attorney, I am often appalled at the way services are portrayed by attorneys and sometimes, to be honest, the “clients”perpetuate that behavior.

    Take provisional patent applications for example: you see ads all over the place: “provisional patents for $1,500-2,000” – I recently gave a talk at a boot camp and reviewed someone’s provisional application which was prepared by a local firm and for which he paid $1600 and it was nothing but a copy of the photographs (mostly useless and did not show the invention) he had sent to the attorney. He could have filed that for less than $200. There was no value added in that filing … yet he was happy thinking that he had gotten a great deal!

    So remember that when you ask for a quote, it it all depends on what value you want to get out of what you want done. To me, you can buy anything cheap and never use it or buy it inexpensively (that is great value for what you pay) and use it as intended. Similar to constructing a home: you need a spec, schedule, material, etc., before you can get a proper quote. Do you want a “blue light special” or something that actually will last? (no disrespect to the company).

    So, as a client, you control a lot of what you will get from your attorney. Legal service is a “personal service” … try to hire for the person and not just the law firm … sometimes it matters to go with a big firm (and I’ve been in those and loved it and have great respect for them) and sometimes it’s the person you hire. As the founder of a small firm, I often have common clients with large firms and that works beautifully … each fulfill a role … as the client you need to do your due diligence to find out what combination and team works best for you.

    Decide where the value is coming to you: from the firm’s reputation and its brawn (and remember that with the big office and address comes an overhead so you need to be fair and aware of that) or the person doing the work.

    Choose your team carefully and always communicate … your attorney should be your partner in your success and like any other relationship, communications of expectations is of great importance. Be realistic in your expectations … as they say “you get what you pay for” … you should expect a great value for what you pay of course! But be ware of those who will give you a low bill but then you walk with nothing.

  29. Jim Staples says:

    Thank you so much! That’s excellent advice. I will do exactly as you suggested. It’s always good to hear it from a lawyer’s perspective.

  30. DanaHShultz says:

    Assuming that fees are being charged hourly, there is a simple way to meet both parties’ expectations:

    At the beginning of a matter, ask the lawyer for an estimate of how many hours will be required. If she says that is not possible for a given matter, decide how many hours you are willing to commit, initially, to that matter.

    Either way, get the lawyer’s agreement that she is not authorized to exceed that number of hours without your consent. If she later finds that it will be necessary to exceed that number, she should get back to you ASAP to explain why this is the case so the two of you can agree on what should be done in response (increase the budget, stop working on the matter, reduce its scope, etc.)

    I disagree to the extent that the answer suggests that you should not challenge hours already billed. The client, not the attorney, determines the value of services delivered. The client has not written a blank check to the law firm. Being up-front with how you feel and perceive things now is in your, and in the attorney-client relationship’s, best interest.