You’ve heard all the lawyer jokes (How do you make a lawyer smile for a wedding photograph – ask them to say “Feeeeeeeees”) and read the bad press (“Compensation wiped out by legal fees”), BUT a good lawyer can help save you money, and money carefully spent on his or her legal fees is well spent.
o Is my first appointment free? Some lawyers provide the first appointment or initial consultation for free. Ask about this when you make an appointment. You certainly shouldn’t have to pay for an initial consultation, although some lawyers will try charging a fraction of their hourly billing rate. Don’t even consider a lawyer who wants to charge you his or her full rate for an initial consultation.
o Understand the law firm’s fee system before you hire a lawyer. Understanding what and how you are to be charged is obviously important. Billing procedures and rates are a common point of disagreement between lawyers and clients. The more you know ahead of time, the better off you’ll be. Again, this is another one of those questions designed to eliminate disagreements later on. Too often clients find themselves on the hook for hidden costs they knew nothing about.
Ask about the account management process – i.e. how often will you get to speak to the lawyer about how your matter is progressing and be given an update and breakdown of costs? If you have a tight budget, let them know and see if they will agree to a fixed price for the work – if it’s a straightforward piece of work, this shouldn’t be out of the question.
o Check for hidden extras. Ask what additional charges there are likely to be (often referred to by the lawyer as “disbursements”) such as searches, stamp duty, bank charges etc. Although it should have been made very clear, make sure whether the figure you have been quoted includes or excludes VAT.
o What do you estimate as the total cost to me? Don’t be concerned if the lawyer resists answering this question. So much of the cost of a case depends on the degree of conflict between you and the other party, and you know that better than the lawyer. You may learn a lot from the lawyer’s answer, however, so it’s helpful to ask. If your fee arrangement is to be hourly, you should also ask your lawyer to notify you when he or she realizes that the estimate is likely to be exceeded.
o What can I do to reduce the charges? Ask if there are any tasks you can do yourself to cut down on the amount you will be charged.
o Conditional Fees (No Win, No Fee). This means that if you lose your case, you don’t have to pay your lawyer, but you may have to pay the legal fees of the winning party. However, if you win, you might have to pay a higher fee. This type of arrangement is most often seen in cases relating to accident/personal injury, human rights cases and insolvency. Increasingly, forward thinking commercial lawyers are prepared to share the risk of other types of commercial transaction with the client. Expect the fee to be higher for a win than it would have been had it been a fixed fee, as long as you pay less or nothing for a “loss” or aborted transaction.
o Please confirm this in writing. In most cases your lawyer must advise you in writing how much the work will cost or, if that is not possible, how costs will be calculated. Don’t sign any agreement about fees unless you understand it and are happy with it and don’t even consider a lawyer who won’t give cost details.
o When do I have to pay? In most cases your lawyer must advise you in advance and in writing how and when you will have to pay. You are entitled to receive a detailed bill before you pay. Some lawyers will agree to wait until the matter ends before you pay them. Remember how and when you pay can always be negotiated.
o Negotiate! Fee and billing schedules aren’t set in stone, and the market place is competitive. So if you think the price is too high, or that you’ll need more time to pay the bill, try negotiating with the lawyer. ..preferably up front. Shop around but also remember cost should not the only factor in choosing your lawyer.