Like any professional, lawyers get paid for their expertise. This doesn't mean that it's always easy to understand the way they bill clients for the work they do. It varies from the type of lawyer you're working with, and among individual lawyers.
The two general types of ways lawyers charge are by the hour, or "on contingency," meaning they get paid only if you win your case. Some lawyers require a retainer, and some don't. It varies and the differences in billing can often lead to a big surprise when you get the final bill for their services.
Read Your Fee Agreement
It's important to thoroughly read your fee agreement before signing it. Make sure you understand how your lawyer will bill you. Pay careful attention to what the fee agreement says about:
- How often you're billed
- Whether you're billed for faxes and copying, and if so, how much
- Whether you're alerted before your billing exceeds a certain amount
- At what rate you're billed for paralegal and assistant work
- Whether other lawyers or experts will work on your case, and if so, how much you'll be charged per hour for their services
- Any estimate of the total billed amount
Be sure to ask questions any time you receive a bill and don't understand what it means.
If you don't understand the bill, or it isn't itemized, ask your lawyer for a detailed description of the services provided to you and the amount charged for each activity.
For further clarity, if your lawyer bills on an hourly basis, it's not good enough for the bill to say "15 hours at $200/hour." The bill should detail, hour by hour, what the lawyer did. Many lawyers bill in six-minute increments, so your bill may be very specific.
Just like when you get a bill at a restaurant or your credit card statement, it's always good to review it.
Talk to Your Lawyer
When you still feel your bill is unfair after getting a detailed accounting of your lawyer's services and reviewing your fee agreement, discuss it directly with your lawyer. In discussing your confusion or frustration, your lawyer may realize there was a mistake in the billing, such as:
- Miscommunication as to how the billing would be done
- Double-billing for the same services
- Billing for time spent on errors made by the lawyer (which you shouldn't have to pay for)
The worst that can come from a talk with your lawyer is that you'll better understand how your lawyer arrived at the final billing total.
Next: How to dispute your bill