We need more lawyers (Part 2)

(Part 2 of 5)

Previously, we discussed one of the five major issues influencing client satisfaction and dissatisfaction: lack of responsiveness.  Before moving forward, it must be abundantly clear that I feel strongly about complaints regarding a lack of responsiveness because it is a bedrock complaint. It is a factor that causes or aggravates most other complaints. As other problems manifest themselves, the attorney becomes less motivated to confront them because they become annoying, time-consuming, and an area of frustration for all parties involved. This is an example of human nature. To illustrate this point, consider a situation once faced by many of us.

Each of us has returned to our residence to notice our answering machine blinking, and we know it is not a message we want to hear. The red, LED light pulses rhythmically, gently illuminating the room. It seems to warn us of the message contained in the little box. Perhaps it is a disgruntled significant other, a bill collector, or a family member asking for money. Either way, we do not want to face the situation because it will cause us discomfort. So, we don’t push the button on the machine.  Instead, we allow the message to languish unattended for the night, and perhaps the next day, and perhaps longer. It may reach a boiling-point where you find yourself huddled behind your couch as the offended party raps at your door incessantly. The feeling is the same. Your feeling of dread overwhelms the fact that you know you must face the problem.

When we provide services as attorneys, we must suppress this natural response to unsavory confrontation. Our motivation is our duty–the duty we earned after 3 years of postgraduate study and an insanely difficult bar examination. Here, there are no excuses. Our duty is to push the button on the machine, regardless of the pain we feel from the knots in our stomach. It’s not easy. Then again, our job is not supposed to be easy.

As you know from before, I am using these points to lobby for more attorneys to share the many clients out there.

Now, the second point generating client unhappiness deserves attention.

Cost and Billing.

Let’s start with two assumptions before I proceed to conclusions.

1. Attorneys deserve to get paid for the value of their services.

2. Clients deserve to know the value of what they are getting.

Attorneys charge for their fees in various ways. The two most popular in non-contingency fee agreements are the flat fee and the retainer.

A flat fee is just that, a flat fee. Legal representation, regardless of outcome or time, costs a certain flat fee. For instance, an attorney may quote a price of $2500 for an uncontested divorce. This means that, regardless of the complexity or simplicity of the matter, the client pays $2500. The benefit to this is that there are no ongoing requests for money on the part of the attorney, and the client has the assurance that the divorce will be finalized without worries about continuing representation. Few complaints arise in flat fee representation, except the occasional complaint that the person paid a lawyer thousands of dollars and ultimately lost at trial. However, the rules are known at the onset of the representation, so ignorance is never an excuse.

The retainer is a bit more dicey. The client asks the attorney to represent their interests in an uncontested divorce, and the attorney states that they require a $2500 retainer to begin work. This means that the attorney will begin working on the case, but the client must pay $2500 upfront and any expense will be deducted from that amount. This includes the attorney’s hourly rate (to include research, travel time, phone calls, faxes, writing emails, and anything else that costs time or money). If the attorney completes work on the case, and the retainer is not exhausted, the remainder is refunded to the client. That’s good. How often does it happen? According to my sources, rarely. Most of the time, one of two things happen: 1. the retainer is exhausted but lasts to the end of the matter or 2. the attorney exhausts the retainer before the end and asks for another $2500 retainer in order to continue representation.

If the retainer covers until the end, then you are even with those who paid the flat fee.

However, the possibility of an additional retainer creates nightmares. Imagine, you pay $2500 for representation and share your time, efforts, information, and hopes with an attorney. Then, 3/4 of the way to your court date, he says he requires another $2500 retainer. You feel panicked, incredulous, and betrayed. You knew about the retainer rules (he explained them briefly).  Then, you ask for an itemization of his charges for your original retainer, which he freely gives.  You see charges such as $5 for a fax, $2 for an email, $100 for his clerk to walk across the street to file papers at the courthouse, and several charges for the times you called him for an update.

How do you feel about that payment system? Apprehensive? I hope so. When you consider that you are paying the attorney $250 per hour for his time, you would think he could spare the cost for a fax or email. How about knowing the meter is running when you call for an update?

I admit, I am picking on the concept of the legal retainer, and part of my criticism is unfair. For those attorneys who communicate fully with their clients, there is little room for complaints. The client understands the reason for the size of the retainer and the costs anticipated by the attorney. That way, if there are changes in the nature of the case, an additional retainer is not absurd. This, however, requires that the client be fully informed about the nature of the retainer agreement–both orally and in writing.

This takes time–more time than either the client or the attorney want to spend on administrative matters. After all, both want to talk about the meat of the case, not the administrative resource requirements preceding representation. The attorney must discipline himself, and he must be willing to take the time. For those attorneys with hundreds of clients, this time is valuable.

Even with a flat fee, it is necessary for me to fully explain the services covered by the fee along with what the fee does not cover. Even with a flat fee, it is possible for additional fees to become necessary, such as a material change in the nature of the case. Once again, explaining the nature of a fee requires time.

In talking with various individuals and their experiences, a universal sentiment is that they did not fully understand the fees and what the fees cover. Most of them simply recognized that they needed an attorney, thought they found the right one, and did what was necessary to start representation.

Notice that I have no addressed the actual cost of legal representation. Most people understand that attorneys are not cheap. The actual price is not at issue. Rather, it is the value of that representation that irks most clients. Sometimes, clients truly do not receive value for their dollars spent. That is unfortunate. Most of the time, however, the client merely does not understand what the lawyer does to earn the money. All that is necessary to rectify this situation is for the attorney to communicate fully and adopt a policy of transparency, and for the client to ask “What am I getting for my money?”

The overarching theme from all of this is that we, as attorneys, owe our clients additional time to discuss the resource requirements of their case, and this means less available time for other lawyerly duties.

Once again, more lawyers sharing the available workload means more of a likelihood that your attorney will take time to explain the ins and outs of representation before hitting the facts of the case, and that is a win for both the client and the attorney.

What most people want from their attorneys is time and attention, and having more lawyers gives you both.

Next Week: Incompetence