Legal Lode: A Firm Grip

Legal Lode: A Firm Grip

Improving the give-and-take in lawyer-client relations.

Lawyer jokes don’t bother me. Most aren’t very good, but now and then I’ve heard a gem. Take the story of the lawyer who died and arrived at the pearly gates. He immediately caught the eye of St. Peter who left his desk, bypassed the waiting multitude, greeted the lawyer warmly, and escorted him up to the front of the line. “Wow, what makes me so special?” asked the lawyer. “Well,” St. Peter replied, “I’ve added up all the hours you billed, and I figure you must be about 180 years old!”

Last month, this column outlined some key aspects of a successful lawyer-client relationship. Without doubt, the source of much conflict and misunderstanding is how much a lawyer bills and for what.

Some people think the recession is over, but clients who got a break on their legal bills when law firms were hungry for business are still demanding alternatives to paying by the hour even as their business recovers. Creative fee arrangements bespeak a fundamental change: clients are increasingly calling the shots on how lawyers carry out their job.

Certain kinds of cases may invite specially tailored billing. For example, if you have a $50,000 claim against another company, but your lawyer can settle the case for $40,000 with only a few hours’ work, an hourly fee may be more attractive than the lawyer’s customary one-third contingency fee. But, even an hourly fee can have its limits – your lawyer may be willing to cap his or her overall fee at a set figure, plus expenses. If you can guarantee a sizable amount of legal work within, say, a calendar year, your lawyer may consider discounting his or her hourly fee.

High on the list of “how to annoy a client” is overstaffing. Will a deposition/meeting/site visit actually require three lawyers? The firm had better be prepared to justify it.

A lawyer who truly serves your interests will also honor your rights as a client by:

  • Handling your business affairs skillfully and diligently.
  • Providing progress reports, which should include estimated remaining legal expenses and copies of any documents, correspondence or court papers prepared on your behalf.
  • Conferring with you on the objectives to pursue and the legal methods to achieve them, as well as when and how to cut your losses.

But keep this in mind: a beneficial relationship is a two-way street. You’ve got obligations to your lawyer. Reveal everything you know, and turn over all key documents, papers and electronic files. Withholding or slanting information, for whatever reason, can seriously undermine his or her efforts and the chances of your success. Let the lawyer know about any changes in your business as they are planned. By the way, you can’t expect a thoughtful discussion of your business concerns when you’ve cornered your lawyer at a social engagement.

A few legal matters have quick, inexpensive, easy solutions; most don’t. Your lawyer may need to talk with a number of individuals inside and outside of your organization and undertake extensive legal research before discussing various courses of action. Last, but not least, your lawyer must know your expectations. It’s similar to writing a book by starting with the last chapter. What does the scene look like? Where do you want to end up? Your lawyer can help you temper unrealistic expectations.

Stick with someone you find to be a good lawyer. Someone who knows you and your business can handle your affairs more efficiently than can a succession of lawyers who must start from scratch. Put another way, no lawyer wants to be, say, the fourth one you’ve had in three years.

Barry Shanoff is a Rockville, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail: [email protected].

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