Lawyers are, for the most part, time-based professionals. This means that you get billed for the time your lawyer spends on your case – whether in talking with you about your personal history or finances, or in drafting papers or representing you at mediation or in court. This is a challenging way to bill for services, because it’s often dependent on how knowledgeable a client is about his or her own affairs, how determined or assured a client is about goals, or how short- or long-winded a person is. I’ve had clients with whom I love to talk –they’re witty, entertaining, insightful – even as they’re detailing some of the most difficult events of their lives. I’ve also had clients whom I admire for their pithiness and innate ability to cut to the chase.
I’ve considered for years how some client’s legal bills wind up considerably higher than others whose cases have followed roughly the same trajectory. It comes down to taking ownership of your case and doing your homework. A lawyer’s job is to understand the facts of your case, to filter those facts through the system of laws, to inform and advise you regarding decisions you have to make, and represent your interests in various types of proceedings. But note, in order for the lawyer to do this, the client has to communicate the facts, listen to the information and advice, and make clear decisions about attainable goals. And do it all on the clock. No client is served by simply abdicating responsibility for his or her case to the lawyer. This means that, in divorce cases for instance, the client has to collect financial records and prepare financial statements, prepare narrative histories, marital fault or financial dealings, create well-articulated parenting plans, and above all, make decisions and communicate them to the lawyer.
The ideal client is probably like the ideal lawyer – organized, pro-active, a good listener, focused and accountable. The client expects the lawyer to be responsive, prompt and well-prepared; the client should be, too. As your attorney assigns “homework” – collecting documents, preparing financial statements, making decisions – commit to being organized, prompt and pro-active. If you deliver your financial records in a garbage bag (don’t laugh, it’s happened) for your attorney to sift through, one of two things will happen. Either she will hand them back to you with a request to return the documents in an organized fashion, or she will take them and bill you for staff and lawyer time to review and organize them. The client is far better served by becoming familiar with the records herself and turning them over organized as she would for an employer. The client learns her case and reduces her bill. She’s better empowered to understand the facts of her own case, discuss them with the lawyer in an efficient (and less expensive) way, and make decisions that concern them. So, take it from the lawyer who bills by the clock – save yourself the fees and improve your ability to manage your own case – get to know your case, get organized, and work together with your lawyer for a better result and lower bill.