16 Things Your Lawyer Won't Tell You

By Will Chen on 24 February 2010 (Updated 25 April 2010) 25 comments

While most lawyers are honest professionals, the legal industry does have its share of rotten apples. From overbilling to downright incompetence, our recent interviews with legal experts revealed 16 dirty secrets bad attorneys don’t want you to know.

1. I use forms but charge you as if I did it from scratch.

Many documents lawyers prepare for clients are slightly edited versions of old templates, according to Steve Brodsky, Esq., of the Brodsky Law Firm.

“Instead of charging for the minor edits, most lawyers charge for a completely new document as if it were created from scratch,” said Brodsky. “There’s nothing wrong with providing edited forms; what’s wrong is the way they are priced.”

2. I hand off work to peons but charge you a lawyer’s rate.

“Much of lawyers’ work is actually done by paralegals, secretaries, and interns,” warned Brodsky. “The lawyer has his paralegal do the work, and charges his regular fee. There is no problem with having well-trained clerks preparing forms—but lawyers should be more honest and not charge $300 per hour for $50-per-hour work.”

3. My Ivy League education doesn’t make me a better lawyer.

“Having an Ivy League degree means their grades were good enough to get into such a school, or their parents were rich enough to pay the tuition,” said Tony Wilson, Esq., associate counsel at Boughton Law Firm and columnist for Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Don’t get hung up on the schools they went to or the brand of their shoes. Some really mediocre lawyers I know went to the best schools.”

4. I hope you don’t look too closely at the expense report.

Due to their size, large law firms can often get great rates for things like copying services, long distance calls, and legal database subscriptions. But instead of passing on the savings to you, some firms charge you a higher rate and pocket the difference.

One good example is shipping charges, according to Alison Anthoine, Esq., principal at consulting firm Quantum Media. “A firm negotiates a discounted rate, which is reflected at the end of the monthly bill, leaving a higher rate on the statement for the specific shipment, which is the documentation given to the client,” said Anthoine. “So, for example, a $50 waybill [charged to the client] may after discount cost only $45 [for the firm].”

5. You don’t really need me.

“Many basic legal tasks, such as simple contracts, basic wills, uncontested divorce, and standard real estate transactions can often be done on your own, or with the help of paralegals and other non-attorney legal professionals,” said Aaron Street, Esq., publisher of Lawyerist, a leading law practice blog. “Sites like Findlaw, NOLO, and LegalZoom can be great places to start for cheap and free solutions to many common, basic legal issues.”

6. My fee is negotiable.

“All attorneys should be open to negotiating their hourly rate, especially if you have a big project or will pay a cash retainer up front,” said Street. “Better yet, ask them to quote you a flat rate for your project. Most attorneys are still learning how to think about flat- or project-rate billing, so they may need your help in setting the fee, but you will then have complete control over the cost of your representation.”

7. You’re always on the clock.

Your lawyer can bill you for every minute he spends thinking or talking about your case. If you run into your lawyer at the golf course and ask about your case, that conversation is billable. Therefore, every communication you have with an attorney should begin with the question: “Are you billing me for this?”

8. I don’t know much about the law.

The legal system is so complicated that most attorneys are only experts within a very specific niche. Just as you wouldn’t ask a podiatrist to perform open heart surgery, don’t expect your personal injury lawyer to give you sound trademark advice. Your best bet is to find out how long the attorney has practiced in the specific area in which you need help, and what percentage of his practice is in that area, suggested Bradley R. Gammell, Esq., of Gammell & Associates.

“You want someone who knows most things without having to look it up,” said Gammell. “This is important not only for the cost, but also to ensure you hire someone with enough experience to identify the legal issues involved. If possible, select an attorney who has focused on the specific area for at least 5 years, with at least 50% of his or her practice in that area for that time. If it is a case with a lot at stake, consider a board certified attorney. He or she will cost more, but the quality of the representation will almost always be as good or better.”

9. I don’t refer you to the best lawyers.

Because most attorneys are only experts in specialized niches, they often have to refer clients to other attorneys who are more qualified in the client’s area of need. In many jurisdictions lawyers are allowed to pay each other referral fees as long as the fee is properly disclosed to the client. While technically legal, this practice creates a bad incentive for lawyers to focus more on the size of the kickback than on the welfare of their clients.

10. Your bill is only a guesstimate.

Attorneys bill clients in six-minute intervals. But don’t let this level of precision fool you—not all lawyers are fanatically staring at their stopwatches to ensure you are not getting overbilled.

“Clients should look out for projects that always last the same amount of time,” warned Tim Davis, Esq., of Grasch & Gudalis. “For instance, telephone conferences that always last four tenths of an hour—every time—or attorney conferences that always take an hour. That would seem like the bill is more of an estimation than a true reflection of the work performed.”

11. I don’t have to tell you how I screwed up in the past.

“As far as I know, lawyers don’t have to disclose to their clients a history of sanctions or other disciplinary actions,” said Philip Segal, Esq., head of Charles Griffin Intelligence, a litigation consulting firm. “Some disciplinary history is a matter of public record, but you have to go to the relevant state authority that licenses lawyers to do your search. Sometimes there will be a record of disciplinary action, but the authorities won’t specify what the action was for. Other times, you can find out why the lawyer was disciplined or perhaps just reprimanded.”

12. I put on a tough act but that won’t actually help your case.

If TV legal dramas have taught us anything, it’s that litigation is won by testosterone-filled lawyers who shout down their opponents and break down witnesses into puddles of tears.

“Much of the grandstanding and posturing is only an act to impress their client,” said Laurie Giles, Esq., of LaurieGiles.com. “Judges and other attorneys are not taking them seriously.”

In fact, the most aggressive lawyers will end up costing you the most money, warned Belinda Rachman, Esq., who specializes in peaceful divorce mediations. “Do not go looking for the nastiest shark or you will pay dearly,” said Rachman. “You don’t need or want a shark in most cases.”

13. Mediation might be the better choice.

“Litigation is a sinkhole,” declared Alison Anthoine. “Mediation gets the principals in a room together with a facilitator, the principals get to speak for themselves (rather than paying lawyers to posture for them). Most importantly, the facilitator gives the principals the neutral listener that they hope to get from their ‘day in court.’ They are empowered to reach their own resolution without any legal mumbo jumbo. If all cases were mediated, there would be no work for litigators, and there is an inherent disincentive for lawyers to encourage mediation.”

14. I can’t easily fire you as a client.

“Many lawyers threaten their clients, indicating that if they don’t pay or sign documents that they will not represent them any longer,” said Alexis A. Moore, a second-year law student and president of Survivors In Action, an advocacy group for crime victims. “Albeit it is possible for a lawyer to discontinue to represent a client for a variety of reasons, there are rules regulating when a lawyer may do so and they are important for clients to know. All clients should read the rules of professional conduct regulating lawyers in their state by visiting their state bar web site, so that the client may have a better idea of what is permissible behavior by a lawyer.”

15. I’m training junior attorneys on your dime.

Very often the lawyer you hired is not the one you will work with. While the seasoned attorneys are used to lure in clients, your matter might be delegated to young attorneys fresh out of law school.

“This is fine if your matter can be done more efficiently by another person with a lower billing rate,” said Kirk J. Halpin, Esq., from Law Offices of Kirk Halpin. “However, law firms sometimes involve many more people than necessary on a matter to help ensure that all of the people in the firm stay busy.

“A junior lawyer that is handling your matter may spend 10 hours doing something that a more experienced attorney could do in 1 hour. Make sure that you are not being charged for the same time when multiple people within a firm are handling a matter unless this is made explicitly clear at the time of the initial engagement. If a senior partner delegates your matter to a junior partner, you shouldn’t be charged for both the senior partner’s time in explaining the matter to the junior partner and the junior partner’s time in meeting with the senior partner.”

16. I’m a dime a dozen.

While 45,000 law students graduate from law school each year, fewer than 30,000 attorney positions are available for these graduates, reported Mark Greenbaum of the Los Angeles Times. To make matters worse, one-third of graduating law students owe about $120,000 in student loans.

This oversupply of debt-laden lawyers puts you in the driver’s seat. Next time you catch your lawyer’s hand in the cookie jar, report him to the state bar and hire one of the many great attorneys waiting in the unemployment line.

Do you trust your attorney? Please share your thoughts and legal horror stories in the comments.

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Guest's picture
Q

I was shocked to get to the end of this article and see it was authored by an attorney. Shame on you for doing such a half-baked hack job on our profession. All you've done is add to the culture of distrust and distaste for a profession that is held to more stringent ethical standards than any other.

I imagine that your opinions about your fellow attorneys are based on more facts than you present here. Why not share those instead of reducing it to a handful of snappy one-liners? Even though one of your clever observations is about specialized areas, you've grouped every attorney - from litigators to family law, big firm to solo practice - into one group and made snide remarks about all of them as a whole.

Guest's picture

This post should have been entitled "16 things some lawyers may not tell you." I assume the author at least means to exempt himself, but this hardly applies across the board.

A good lawyer comes with full disclosure and fair billing in all situations. Not one of the above "warnings" applies to my firm.

Also, while I am flattered that you quoted my blog, Lawyerist, in item #5, I cannot find the post you pulled Aaron's quote from. Regardless, I think he would be the first to point out that the "you" he was referring to was an attorney with basic legal training.

While laypersons are capable of doing many legal tasks on their own, it almost always makes sense to hire a lawyer--even if just to proof the documents before they are finalized.

Finally, Mr. Chen, since you hold yourself out as a consumer rights lawyer, you might want to join the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

Guest's picture
Canadian Lawyer

I write this as a lawyer who, through working extensively with judges and heavy academics, has a good idea what kind of variety is floating around in legal work.

I agree with everything above except advocating a DIY approach, in certain areas.

Areas where you can do it yourself and more people should (in Canada): small claims court, some parts of traffic court, many sentence appeals, human rights violations, minor employment disputes, preparing a simple holograph will (check the library for good books about it, internet forms are slightly less reliable), etc.

Areas where you should not do it yourself: most disputes with an insurer, divorce and parenting agreements, criminal charges, anything where a lot of money is at stake. Reasons:

(1) Insurance disputes typically involve statutes plus contracts and are hard for laypeople to deal with. Plus, lawyers scare insurers into behaving differently and can speed the process.

(2) Divorce is one where people who stand the most to lose may not get what they deserve. While other areas of the law are often intuitive and fair, family law is absolutely not. A bad lawyer is actually worse than none, but a good lawyer will give you the full rundown of what you might be entitled to and will walk you through what you need to do to ensure you keep playing a role in your kid's life, coaching you on what counts and getting you swiftly to a good interspousal. My advice? Talk to a lawyer before you leave, even for an hour, even if you feel like you don't have anything to split up. Then go see a counsellor and get your emotions out of the way because there's no point in paying your lawyer talk about what a jerk the other person is. It works both ways and I've seen mom or dad lose because they didn't get help early. What you save in the short run here will usually cost you in the long run.

(3) Criminal law is difficult, even for non-criminal lawyers, because defenses and strategy are highly technical. Even if you didn't do it and are sure the world will see your innocence, don't say anything and get a lawyer.

A good lawyer, like a good accountant, will save you time and money by providing effective solutions. Who's good? Lawyers don't even necessarily know. Try to find someone you think got a good deal and ask who they worked with and who was on the other side (it often takes two good lawyers to make a good deal). Better, see two lawyers for an initial consultation and compare what they tell you. A good lawyer doesn't just sell you the wins, they caution you on the losses and are realistic. They can usually give you a ballpark about what each step will cost and if a retainer agreement is necessary it will be something you can understand. Don't accept less.

And if your lawyer isn't good? Go directly to the law society and complain. They're insured and if you lost as a result of obviously bad legal work, hold them accountable. I wish more people would.

Guest's picture
andyg8180

When i did my mortgage, I looked at the fine print and it had "$150 - email packet to assnt" and some other useless crap This was before closing, so i bitched every single day and threatened to get a new mortgage lawyer to do my paperwork if it wasn't pulled... his excuse "it costs money to do mortgages" yea i understand that but it doesnt cost $150 to email something to someone... The biggest nighmare of the mortgage process was the G.D. lawyer...

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm an attorney and I read this post with many many large grains of salt...

It raises many good points, such as the one about firms negotiating a lower rate for mailing packages and office supplies. But many clients should be aware that only large firms have this kind of negotiating power, and most individual clients can't go to large firms.

Also, be very, very careful about DIY legal action - I've seen far too many people in a worse position for trying to do things themselves.

Finally, hiring an unemployed attorney with no practical experience is tantamount to doing it yourself. Law school really doesn't train lawyers, that's all done through experience.

Guest's picture
ctreit

I think every time I interact with a lawyer, I experienced all 16 things. The bad news: there is very little you can do about any one of these things. What recourse do clients have when a lawyer does not perform well? How do you measure performance anyway? - Thanks for writing such a bold post!

Guest's picture

This article is so ridden with myths, errors and dubious generalizations that the author should be sued for journalism malpractice. Let's start with point #4. What is written there as fact is 100% unethical in every jurisdiction. Lawyers may only pass through actual costs. Some may cheat but to write as if this is commonplace is false and nothing more than linkbait. Same for point #2. The author and that moron Brodsky might charge their rate for "work" done by peons but ethical lawyers cannot and do not do this.

Next time, contact some real lawyers, not just hacks and whiners.

Guest's picture
Kim

If you believe in how the market operates, then the comment about the high billing for the heck of it is false. If anyone could be an attorney, they would be, or people would DIY, there wouldn't be enough work for attorneys, and their prices would drop in competition, as would the cost of law school. As an attorney, I have seen the bad apples, and the bad apples do most of these things. But honestly, how many bad apples are there? True copies & faxes are billed extremely high, but you could've copied your personal documents yourself. Do you know how long it takes to do copying to answer an interrogatory on a "simple" construction case? I am also required by the State to put everything in writing with extensive disclaimers, as opposed to calling you, so that should be worth something. And it costs me thousands to keep up with state requirements and continuing education.

DIY for anything beyond a 1 page contract ends in abject failure. You admitted that attorneys ARE necessary right in your article: attorneys have niches, and thus have to refer you to others. The very reason niches exist is that it is so damn complicated, and thus is not a DIY activity.

Ridiculous article.

Will Chen's picture

@Q -- I'm not saying all attorneys engage in these practices.  The first paragraph clearly states "While most lawyers are honest professionals, the legal industry does have its share of rotten apples. From overbilling to downright incompetence, our recent interviews with legal experts revealed 16 dirty secrets bad attorneys don’t want you to know."

@Sam -- The Lawyerist is a great resource.  Congratulations on creating such a great publication.  Please thank Aaron again for me when you see him.  I did an email interview with Aaron, and I'm pretty sure the "you" he referred to was to a lay person.  In the email he sent me, he prefaced the quote with the subtitle "Skip the Lawyer."

@Canadian Lawyer -- Thank you for the great info.  Your comment is a great post by itself!

@Mr. ToughMoneyLove --  I don't mind criticism of my articles, but please don't call anyone a moron.  Regarding #4, I had additional quotes from Alison on the subject:  "Re Lexis/Westlaw, some background: law firms have been reducing the size of their print libraries for years (providing significant savings in overhead costs-- both real estate and subscriptions) and relying instead on online services. Many law firms pay a flat fee for these online services but charge them to their clients at a per minute rate that is on top of the billing rate for the lawyer or paralegal who is doing the research."  A few years ago Alison represented pro bono a group of clients challenging Lexis/Westlaw fees from a large firm (a top 40 firm, I won't mention the name here).

@Kim -- You (and Canadian Lawyer) are right that many legal fields are so complicated that it is not advisable to go without an attorney.  As Aaron specified in his quote, he is referring to "basic legal tasks." 

Guest's picture
L

I agree with commenter Q. "All you've done is add to the culture of distrust and distaste for a profession that is held to more stringent ethical standards than any other."

I suppose the only support you've given is to recommend that people "DIY" various important documents. At least that way...when people have messed these documents up beyond all repair, a lawyer will be there to pick up the pieces.

Guest's picture

Awesome thoughts Will.
I have found that with any consulting or service provider it is imperative to work on a fixed fee basis. Otherwise the clock is always ticking and the client ends up paying for any downtime or lack of efficiency. It is so much easier to get a fixed fee for a fixed outcome because you know where you are going to end up financially.

Guest's picture

Aaron and I often disagree. For example, he thinks lawyers are capable of building their own websites. Having seen many examples of what happens when lawyers build their own websites, I think 90% or more of lawyers should probably hire a consultant.

The same goes for laypersons creating their own legal documents. Some people have the ability and luck to use what they find online and get it right. Most that I have seen get it wrong, and would benefit from hiring a competent lawyer to make sure their document does what they think it will.

The good news is that hiring a lawyer to review and comment on a document should generally cost about $250, tops. Cheap insurance, especially if you are talking about getting your will, healthcare directive, or pleadings right.

Guest's picture

It seems the author is backfilling from a misleading title and over-the-top quotations. I called Brodsky a m------n because he is quoted as saying that "most lawyers charge for a completely new document as if it were created from scratch." "Most" lawyers? Check out Brodsky's website. How would he know what real lawyers do? He is one (small) step above LegalZoom. If you look at his list of "services", he is an expert in pretty much every legal area, all by himself. His quote in this article is a nothing more than a self-serving advertising pitch.

Guest's picture

This article was disappointing on many levels. I expected more proactive suggestions about how to avoid the pitfalls described from a Wise Bread article.

Don't just tell me what my attorney won't tell me, help me overcome it please. How do I, as a consumer of legal services, dispute a fee? How do I recognize when I'm being over-charged or otherwise taken advantage of by a less than reputable lawyer? Do I have to hire the author for this help? Should this article really be labeled as an advertisement?

On a different note, I'm not even a lawyer and this article managed to insult me.

Guest's picture
LibrarianJ

Here's an excerpt from 'The Moral Compass of the American Lawyer' by Richard Zitrin) that is quite enlightening:

"In 1991, Cumberland (Ala.) law professor William Ross surveyed 280 lawyers in private practice and 80 who worked in-house for companies. The results were shocking.

Seven out of eight practicing lawyers said that it was ethical to bill a client for "recycled" work originally done for another client.

Half said they had billed two different clients for work performed during the same time period, such as dictating a memo for one client while traveling for another.

Just as shocking were what lawyers concluded about their colleagues' billing practices: 55% said that lawyers occasionally or frequently "pad" their hours; 64% said they were personally aware of lawyers who had padded their bills."

Guest's picture
LibrarianJ

Here's another report on a similar survey by the same law professor conducted in 2007:

http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2007/05/01/study-suggests-significant-billing-a...

"Ross polled 5,000 attorneys from various walks of life throughout the country, and 251 responded. He worked with Reed Business Information to generate a random sampling of lawyers who work at law firms.

Two-thirds said they had “specific knowledge” of bill padding a finding virtually identical to one reached by Ross in a 1995 billing survey. Also, 54.6% of the respondents (as compared with 40.3% in 1995) admitted that they had sometimes performed unnecessary tasks just to bump up their billable output.

Ross says that bill padding involves invoicing a client for work never performed — or exaggerating the amount of time spent on a matter—- while unnecessary work is that which “exceeds any marginal utility” to a client."

Guest's picture
S de Lama

I had hired 3 different attorneys to help me get child support for my daughter who was still in high school when she turned 18. My original attorney dropped my case right before the hearing because my ex was not paying child support and I couldn't pay him any more at the time, so I went to court in front of a first time divorce court judge (that I heard played tennis with my ex's attorney) on my own. I worked for the school system for 10 yrs but due to my ex's lies the judge told me I had a certain number of days to quit that job as he said I was working below my capacity, and go to work for the employer my ex said would hire me for 20.00 an hr (now this was over 10 yrs ago.) Of course it was a lie and I never got the job so I had to scurry to find something else. So I was left with no child support for my oldest daughter and ended up with 88.00 a month for both girls for the next couple of years until my youngest daughter turned 18. My ex was in real estate at the time and claimed he wasn't making anything-even though he was the top listing agent, the top salesman and in the multi million dollar club at the time. He had hacked into my computer, after he sent us on vacation, and got my password. So, he new everything going on and was always a step ahead of me. He found out I was taking him to court for back child support through the Legal Assistance program so he paid enough of the back child support to get the major amount dropped. He also discarded all papers, articles, and records of his income and awards that would prove he was lying about his income. And even though the court ordered his past employers to verify his income, they never did and no one would enforce the order without hiring another attorney. So, I hired a second attorney to help with this and help get the child support. This attorney went in front of the judge unprepared saying he thought that was the hearing to file an extension (even though the day before I tried to update all information with him telling him that I was told that was the final hearing.) So nothing was done there. The third attorney I paid 300.00 to write a letter to help and he said he would also help do something about the other attorneys but he was never at his office for appointments, never answered calls, and of course I never got the letter. So do I have a bad taste in my mouth for attorneys-yes. That is not the only bad story I could share. I should've gone to the bar with complaints-but by the time I figured that out it was too late.

Guest's picture
Danielle

Some states are taking action to ensure that prospective clients can verify whether an attorney has been subject to disciplinary action. In Nevada, where I practice, this now has to be included in the attorney biographies that we have available in accordance with Supreme Court guidelines.

I strongly discourage people from doing their own legal forms. I won't look over legal forms for family members who reside in different states and I urge them to seek licensed counsel. I have a CPA or a tax specialist do my taxes for a reason. It is critical to have someone with expert knowledge assisting you. I have seen so many clients who have missed one step trying to process their own mechanic's lien and then they have lost their lien rights. Then it is three times the cost during litigation to try and remedy that mistake.

In addition, the practices that most frequently use form-based work and paralegals for the majority of the work, in my experience, are those cases that are taken on a contingency, like personal injury cases. That's how the PI firms compete to keep their contingency rates competitive with one another.

Guest's picture
Q

@Will Chen - so you weren't talking about all lawyers - but you still posted an inflammatory, unhelpful and unsupported article. Just tell me - what is the point of this post? To make people never trust attorneys?

The comments here, both from attorneys and those who have had trouble with attorneys, have provided more fact-based warnings and useful information that your post. I hope you are a better attorney than you are a blogger, but somehow, I doubt it.

Guest's picture

Question for Anthoine cited in post. Is the case you worked on similar to this one?

http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/chadbourne_accused_of_overbilling...
sorry I don't know if links are allowed

An unjust enrichment lawsuit claims Chadbourne & Parke billed a client $20,000 for online legal research that cost the law firm only $5,000.

San Diego lawyer Patricia Meyer, who represents the Texas businessman suing Chadbourne, tells the National Law Journal that at least a dozen other law firms are also overbilling for research, and more lawsuits are in the pipeline.

Meyer alleges that Chadbourne and several other law firms are paying flat fees to legal research companies such as Westlaw and LexisNexis, but billing clients at hourly rates, the story says. Meyer claims it is a violation of California ethics rules to charge the higher amount without disclosing the arrangement to clients.

"This appears to be more widespread than you would think," Meyer told the publication. "Basically what we're finding is that certain law firms are using Westlaw and Lexis as profit centers. … Quite candidly, what we're finding is the clients really have no idea that this is going on.”

How did this case turn out?

Guest's picture
Lulu

I actually got so many of those tips from reading one of John Grisham's novels. I was really not surprised, especially on the billing, as all the incoming lawyers are told to bill for even 5 minutes of doing work.

Guest's picture
Danielle

Lulu,

If you read your retainer agreements, yes, we bill for doing five minutes worth of work. My time isn't free. You'd be billed .1 for the five minutes. Where exactly did people get the idea that the first fifteen minutes would be free? Or that only the tasks that they approve are free? It's outlined in the contract that you sign at the beginning of your engagement with the lawyer.

Think about it. If you hire a therapist, you pay for an hour and it is typically fifty minutes. I don't see people complaining about that. It's an industry standard.

Guest's picture
JJ

...is: how much I bill you is directly related to how much of a pain you've been while I've been trying to dig you out of whatever mess you've found yourself in.

Guest's picture
sewingirl

As a legal layperson reading this article, I didn't believe that it was supposed to represent a majority of attorneys, any more than an article about bad CPA's would represent a majority of accounting firms. This was an informative article about the pitfalls of legal representation, and much HAS been written about what recourse is available. Don't take yourselves quite so seriously, and please don't confuse approachable with unprofessional, lawyers can be very intimidating. BTW, did you know that Rogets Thesuarus lists "shyster" as one of their selections in the lawyer category? Now that's stereotyping!

Guest's picture
Elizabeth I

I am not sure if anyone mentioned that you can research lawyers and law firms to see how reputable they are. Additionally, regarding malpractice cases, often lawyers fees are contingent on whether or not you actually win or receive a settlement.