Now what I am hoping to do is to provide some very basic information about what to expect when you get your first legal bill (woo hoo!). Please remember that this is just general information and it comes from my personal experience – I don’t profess to understand the inner workings of all legal minds.
In my previous post, I referred to a retainer agreement. This is the agreement between you and your lawyer detailing your working relationship. It should explain what you are hiring the lawyer to do, it should explain how you are going to pay the lawyer, it should explain when your lawyer can decide to no longer work for you and it should also explain how you can fire your lawyer. Remember, we work for you – so you are able to cease using us. As I’ve previously said though, an honest conversation about your concerns is first recommended.
Most retainer agreements will tell you when you can expect your first bill. Usually it is at the end of the first month that they have done work for you. What you should find in your bill is a detailed account of work done on your file, how many hours were spent, the total cost of legal fees, the costs of disbursements, the taxes on fees and taxable disbursements and any amount outstanding.
Generally at the beginning of any legal relationship, the lawyer will ask that you pay a retainer. This is basically a deposit for their services. There is a more legal reason based in the law of contracts, but all you need to remember is that the retainer means you have the lawyer working for you from here on out. A retainer is a sum of money that is put into our trust account and held there until we bill you for our services. So if you write us a cheque, the funds will come out of your bank but we won’t have access to those funds until we do work for you and then issue a bill for it. Trust accounts are regulated by the Law Society and there are some very specific rules about dealing with trust funds.
Most of the time, your retainer funds will be used to pay for the bill you have just been issued, so it is likely that you won’t have to go in and pay the bill directly. Often, when the retainer gets to below a certain point, the lawyer will ask that you top the funds up. This saves everyone running around at the last minute (for example your lawyer has to head into court for you) trying to make sure that your lawyer is paid. Many firms, including ours, have a policy that if we are going into court, mediation or an examination for discovery, the fees associated with those applications must be in trust before we attend.
I think that many issues with legal bills come down to confusion as to what is billable and what is not.
The general rule of thumb is that lawyers are very expensive friends!! Remember that we charge for our time. That includes time spent emailing, telephoning, writing letters and reviewing files. We are professionals who have spent a lot of years in school to qualify to do what we do, the best use of our time is to deal with your legal issues, not the other things. So, it is not cost effective to call your family lawyer to discuss how much you don’t like your ex, or to hand your lawyer a completely disorganized box of paperwork.
From my experience, if I get 100 emails from the same client in the space of two weeks – even if they are just one or two lines each – I will be billing for the time spent on these. I also remind my clients of my role when we begin to have that conversation best suited for drinks with your friends. Remember, the cost of a couple of pints of beer / a bottle of wine to have your friends listen to your woes is significantly less than an hour or two of my time.
Here are a few tips to keep your costs down and make the best use of your legal professional:
1. Keep your focus on your legal issues and try and keep your communications as streamlined as possible.
2. When you give your lawyer lots of documents, have them organized.
3. Type up a chronology of events to give to your lawyer for ease of reference.
4. Speak with the lawyer’s assistant if it is a general administrative issue as opposed to a legal issue. Often lawyer’s assistants know more about these issues anyway.
5. Talk to your friends or counselors about “heart stuff”.
6. If you have a number of things to discuss with your lawyer, it may be more efficient to make an appointment, rather than phone and email a number of times.
7. Make and keep a list of things that you would like to discuss with your lawyer during a meeting. Make sure to deal with all of the points.
8. If you are not scheduled to have a meeting, make a list and then send one email with all of your questions or points.
Basically, use your common sense. As your relationship with your lawyer develops, you will find that each of us bills differently. If you ever have questions about your bill – then ask your lawyer. We need to be able to explain why we bill the way we do!