Everyone wants great value when they spend money. The same is true when it comes to law firms and legal services.
Occasionally, clients have questions about hourly billing and want to know how to keep their costs as low as possible without sacrificing the quality professional services to which they are accustomed. This short article is intended to answer some of those questions and offers tips to clients to assist in keeping their costs as low as possible. Remember, this memo is intended to be general information. The retainer agreement with your attorney or law firm sets out the particular terms of your legal or business services agreement with your lawyer.
Lawyers and staff often bill by the amount of time spent working on your legal or business matters. This is called “hourly billing” or “timed billing.” The tasks for which attorneys and staff will bill on an hourly basis are included in your individual retainer agreement. Generally, attorneys and staff will bill at their prevailing hourly rate for any time that they spend working on your matter. The prevailing hourly rate for your matter is usually contained in your retainer agreement with your lawyer.
Usually, attorneys and staff bill their time in 1/10 of an hour increments which computes to billing in six minute increments. Alternatively, your lawyer may bill his or her time in 1/4 of an hour increments, which computes to 15 minute increments. By billing in such small increments, attorneys are able to keep costs as low as possible for the client, while still using an accurate and readable record keeping system.
Hourly billing is fair to both the attorney and the client because the attorney only bills the client for the actual time assisting the client and the client is not billed for more than the reasonable amount of time spent by the attorney or staff member. Every court and bar association in the United States approves of hourly billing as a fair way to record the value of an attorney or staff person’s services for most matters.
Clients, especially clients that are not used to working with an attorney or law firm, occasionally express concern about hourly billing, especially when the client is used to receiving a tangible object, such as a piece of furniture, a new computer, or a new pair of shoes when spending money.
It is important to remember that attorneys and support staff do provide a great deal of value by virtue of performing work necessary to assist you with your legal or business problem. Attorneys are licensed professionals because they spend substantial time learning about the law, maintaining professional integrity and earning experience that can help you achieve the best possible result for your legal or business matter. While you will occasionally receive tangible goods as a result of your attorney’s work, such as a contract, legal pleading, or memorandum, it is also important to understand that advice provided over the phone, via e-mail or in a client meeting is also valuable use of the attorney’s time.
Because an attorney only has his or her time and expertise to “sell,” the attorney must bill for time spent on a matter, even when it may only be a short period of time spent on the matter. This is because any time spent on your matter could have been spent earning fees helping another client or other valuable use of the attorney’s time.
Attorneys are professionally obligated to accurately report their fees and time spent to the client. Attorneys will only bill you for the reasonable time spent on your matter.
Keeping Client Costs Low
Attorneys are always willing to assist their clients in a diligent and professional manner. However, clients can make changes in their behavior that will help to keep their costs low. Here are some general tips for keeping your hourly billing invoices as low as reasonably possible:
Consolidate Questions: Many clients will call their attorney anytime a question comes up. While most attorneys are more than happy to take your calls as their schedules allow, many “quick questions” via phone, e-mail, or personal visit can lead to higher costs for the client, because the attorney needs to divert her attention from one matter to another. Instead, consider writing down any non-emergency questions and call when you have several questions at once. This will allow the attorney to focus on your matter and likely answer the questions more efficiently than if the questions were asked via several separate phone calls or visits.
Communicate via E-Mail: E-mail has several advantages over phone or letters. First, e-mail is easier for the attorney to file and record, which assists the attorney in efficiently answering your present and future questions. Second, the attorney can be sure to have the answer by the time he or she responds, compared to a phone call where the client may catch the attorney when the client’s file is not immediately available to the attorney. Like telephone calls, try to save multiple questions and put them all into one e-mail, so your attorney can answer all your questions at once.
Respond to Questions and Inquiries in a Timely Manner: Your attorney will likely have questions for you throughout his or her work on your legal matter. Just as your attorneys will do for you, it is important that you respond to any requests as quickly as possible. Forcing a lawyer to make several attempts to get in touch with a client increases costs.
Review Materials from Your Attorney Carefully: Your attorney will typically provide copies of the important documents in your matter, such as your retainer agreement, your invoices, and other important documents such as pleadings or contracts. Reviewing your copies carefully costs you nothing and can often assist you in answering your questions without having to contact your attorney.
Remember that you are always free to contact your attorney, whether you have one question or many, and he or she will respond within a reasonable amount of time.
While costs can be controlled to some extent with the tips above, remember that your attorney’s primary interest and duty is in protecting your legal interests. He or she must take all the procedural steps necessary to fully represent you. Implementing the practices recommended in this article allows a client to reduce the costs within his or her control, but you should always be wary of “going too far” and restricting an attorney’s ability to fully represent your legal interests.