Fees: How to coexist with your attorney

Let’s get right to the heart of the matter and continue the discussion on lawyer fees.

Studies at Harvard have shown that the mere mention of the phrase “lawyer fees” will cause a grown man or woman to take to bed for several days. My guess is that disputes over hourly billing are the primary cause of this ailment.

The vast majority of lawyer bills are calculated on an hourly basis.

Unfortunately, the hourly billing arrangement tends to create a tension between the lawyer and client. Contrary to popular opinion, most lawyers take the job seriously and try to accomplish the best result for the client. Typically, the more time and attention a lawyer devotes to a matter, the better the result. And the costlier the product.

The client, of course, also wants the best result. But get this — the client wants the job done for the least amount of money possible.

What can be done to minimize the conflict in this process, or at least minimize the potential for serious disagreement when your lawyer hands you the bill?

The first step is a candid and straightforward opening discussion between lawyer and client about fees and billing. The second step is a written fee agreement.

The state of Wyoming has adopted a set of laws entitled the Wyoming Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 1.5 states that lawyer fees must be reasonable. There are a number of factors which determine whether a lawyer’s fee is reasonable, including the lawyer’s experience, reputation and ability, the nature and complexity of the project, and of course, the time billed for the project.

The law does not require that a fee agreement be in writing (except for contingency fees), but it is a wise idea. The fee agreement should contain information about the fee — including the hourly rate or other basis for the fee — describe the nature of the project, and provide details about the lawyer’s billing procedures, including costs (such as court reporters, expert witnesses, appraisals, etc.) and disbursements such as long distance telephone charges, copy costs, travel expenses, etc.).

Now that you are under contract with your very own personal lawyer, what additional shocks should you expect?

Abraham Lincoln once said that a lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade. Although no one is really sure what he meant by that, my guess is he was trying to warn you not to be surprised when you look at your first bill and the charges for each of those telephone calls with your lawyer last month. Your first thought is that this must be a mistake. It is not a mistake.

We already know that most lawyers bill their time by the hour. (Hourly rates in Teton County seem to range from about $125 per hour to $200 per hour.)  Most lawyers also have a minimum billing time, typically 6 minutes (1/10th of an hour), 10 minutes or 15 minutes, which usually applies to telephone calls.

Telephone calls are important. Lots of work is accomplished on the phone and it helps make the lawyering process more efficient. It is not unusual for a lawyer to get between 15 and 30 calls per day.

Your lawyer, Neal Able, is working on a particularly important and difficult project for you. It requires intense concentration. Every phone call Neal receives for another client requires that he turn his attention to some other matter, perhaps retrieving a file, taking notes, looking up a statute, giving direction to the secretary or paralegal.

Although perhaps involving no more than 5 or 10 minutes of time, multiply that by the many phone calls Neal will receive during the day and hopefully you can understand the necessity for billing telephone calls in minimum increments of time.

Billing for travel time is another sensitive issue. Wyoming is about the best place in the world to call home. But getting from one Wyoming town to another, even during the warm months, is very time consuming.

Our capital, Cheyenne, is 420 miles from here. Neal Abel needs to go to Cheyenne to appear before the Wyoming Supreme Court to handle the appeal of a case in which you are involved (which, by the way, he won for you at trial but which the other party has appealed). It will literally take one day to get there and another day to get home (unless you fly him there in your Learjet). Should Neal not bill you for travel time, two days on the road, and bill only for the two hours directly involved in the hearing with the Wyoming Supreme court? If so, he would quickly be out of business. Should Neal discount his hourly rate for travel time?

The lawyer-client relationship is typically intense and complicated.

Communication is the key to making the relationship work. And don’t forget to hug Neal every now and then. If he bills you for the time, fire him.