Legal bills too high? How to reduce sticker shock

Most lawyers in private law firms bill by the hour. And many types of legal work — particularly drafting, research and document review — require more time than clients generally assume. So “sticker shock” over the amount of the first legal is common.
Are there things a client can do to lower the shock? Yes, says William J. Maffucci, attorney with Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC.

Smart Business spoke with Maffucci about how clients can lower their own legal bills.

How can one go about lowering legal expenses when hiring an hourly-fee lawyer?

Legal work billed by the hour will always be expensive. But many people who hire hourly-fee lawyers don’t realize that they can reduce their future legal bills by, effectively, becoming part of their own legal team. They can handle many tasks that, although necessary to the representation, do not require a legal degree or a paralegal certification. The savings can be substantial, and — not paradoxically — the client’s efforts can improve the quality of the legal service.

What are some tasks clients can handle on their own?

One simple thing can be done whenever you are about to deliver documents to your lawyer: organize them. At a minimum, put them in chronological order. This is particularly important at the beginning of the engagement.

Recently a new client told me she had about 100 documents that were relevant to her matter. I asked her to arrange the documents chronologically before bringing them to my office. She ignored my request and showed up at my office with a grocery bag of unorganized, unstapled and unfastened documents. It took us over two hours to sort, which resulted in additional legal fee of approximately $900.

Clients can also review and comment upon documents, such as deposition transcripts, that are produced or created during the course of the representation. I have had many intelligent and motivated clients make comments that were at least as helpful as the comments I would have expected from paralegals, working at billing rates of perhaps $200/hour.

Are there other things a client can do to reduce the cost of hourly-rate legal service?

Whenever possible, the client should communicate with the attorney by email and not by telephone. Reading an email takes less time than having the same communication by phone. Far more than emails, phone calls disrupt a lawyer’s day in ways that a lawyer often reflects in a bill.

Many law firms and lawyers have a policy of billing in minimum time increments, often 15 minutes, even if the work at issue required less time. Clients understandably can get upset when they are billed for fifteen minutes of a time on a phone call that only took, say, six or seven minutes. But billing for the additional time is defensible because the disruption that a phone call usually causes to workflow almost always results in additional time spent by the lawyer.

The other email-related rule is this: Make it clear to your lawyer that, whenever possible, written communication to you should be through email, not the postal service or hard-document courier service. No one expects standard email communications to be as polished and professional-looking as documents on letterhead. So, whether the lawyer types the email or dictates it and gives it to a secretary to type, the elapsed lawyer time will usually be less than the time the lawyer spends preparing a hard-copy letter. And email avoids postage, which many lawyers would pass on to their clients.

Do lawyers generally appreciate when their clients use these techniques?

I’ve never met a lawyer who didn’t welcome the efforts of a client to relieve the amount of non-legal work the lawyer was obligated to do. And I’ve never met a lawyer who was offended by a client’s insistence that the lawyer communicate via email.

Eliminating the time that a lawyer must spend on non-legal work and reducing the amount of time that a lawyer must spend on written communication helps the lawyer focus on the important components of the representation. That can only make the legal service more effective.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC