Taking Steps to Protect Your Legal Rights Regarding Attorney’s Fees
1 Understand a lawyer’s professional responsibility. As part of the legal profession, attorneys are required to follow certain legal rules. Courts recognize that attorneys are in a better position to negotiate for their fees versus most individuals seeking an attorney. Therefore, attorneys are prohibited from seeking an unreasonable amount for attorney’s fees and expenses. When determining whether a fee is unreasonable, a court will consider:
?? The skill and labor required to handle the case, including whether it was a novel or difficult legal issue.
?? The fee other attorneys in the area generally charge for similar legal services.
?? The amount involved in the case and the outcome of the case.
?? How long the client and attorney have been working together.
?? The reputation and experience of the lawyers.
?? Whether the fee is fixed or contingent.
2 Request an itemized bill. Once you have entered into a retainer agreement for legal services, you should request an itemized bill. If you are working under a contingent fee agreement, you can ask for a statement of costs generated in the case thus far. If you entered into an hourly agreement, you should receive an itemized bill when the attorney is seeking payment. You can also request an itemized bill to show how your retainer was used.
?? Your bill should list every cost in the case and every increment that an attorney worked, including the attorney’s name, what the attorney was working on and the date of the work.
3 Review your bill carefully. Once you receive your bill you wanted to review it very carefully. You are looking for any improper charges, duplicate billing or excessive fees. Some examples of improper billing practices include:
?? Charges for office overhead, administrative charges and/or clerical services. You should not be charged for secretaries, receptionists or photocopy operators.
?? Any charges for time spent on billing or collections. If you and your attorney have a conversation to discuss a disputed bill, you should not be charged for that call.
?? Non-itemized bills.
?? Bills that reflect excessive time to complete a task. While some tasks may take longer than others, an attorney should not need an excessive amount of time for legal writing or researching. Courts have ruled against attorneys for billing for excessive time.
?? Excessive staffing. If you have a small legal matter, it is unlikely that there should be several attorneys working on the case, in addition to paralegals or other legal service personnel.
?? Failure to delegate. The highest paid lawyer should not be handling routine legal research and writing but should delegate that task to a junior attorney who is less expensive.
?? Double-billing. A lawyer cannot bill multiple clients for a one-time effort that was used in multiple cases.
?? Rate changes that were unannounced. An attorney cannot start billing at a higher rate than what you originally agreed upon.
?? Time spent for training new lawyers in a new area of law.
4 Discuss billing questions with your attorney. If you think a bill is unfair or you question a charge, you should contact your attorney and discuss the bill. By discussing the bill directly, you may more quickly reach a resolution. An attorney can realize that there was a mistake and correct it or agree to reduce the charges that seem overly high. At worst, your attorney can state that the final bill amount is correct and you have to decide what, if any, steps you want to take.
5 Take part in alternative dispute resolution. If you and your attorney cannot come to an agreement regarding a disputed bill, you can seek an alternative to court to resolve your case. Generally, there are two alternatives that you may choose to pursue, mediation or arbitration.
?? In mediation, you and the attorney retain a neutral 3rd party, often a retired judge, to help your reach an equitable settlement.
?? The mediator will talk to the parties together and separately and share his or her viewpoint as to the strengths and weaknesses of each position. If a settlement is reached, the mediator will draft a settlement agreement and both parties will sign it.
?? In arbitration, often the parties cannot reach a mediated settlement so they agree to present their cases to a neutral-third party. The arbitrator will hear testimony, review legal briefs and even hear testimony from expert witnesses.
?? The parties agree beforehand to be bound by the arbitrator’s decision. The arbitrator generally drafts up his or her decision that outlines a settlement amount, if any.
6 Report your attorney to the state bar association. If you believe that you were charged excessive fees, that your attorney took money from you to which he or she was not entitled, or any other illegal activity, you should report the attorney to the bar association in the state where the attorney is licensed.
?? State bar associations investigate disciplinary issues and have the power to sanction or even prohibit an attorney from practicing law in the state.
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