In Part 1 of this series, we discussed what you should expect of your lawyer in terms of responsiveness and expertise. Part 2 continued the discussion and explained how you should measure the experience of your attorney. This installment addresses the financial part of the relationship and the importance of your lawyer giving you advice you can really use—not just a legal “opinion”.
#6 You Usually Get a Long, Complicated, (and Expensive) Legal Memo Instead of Succinct and Practical Advice
When you need advice on a particular course of action, there may be significant legal issues to analyze. In those cases you may expect or even request a written analysis of the law from your lawyer. But many times you will be considering some seemingly routine action but have that nagging feeling that you should check with your lawyer first. If your lawyer cannot answer the question in the first phone call, he or she will likely say something like, “Let me look into that” or “Let’s see if there are any cases discussing facts like this.” That is certainly appropriate, but if the next thing that happens is you receive a multipage memo full of legal citations that makes you dizzy just to read, your lawyer is missing a critical skill. You should first receive a call or visit from your lawyer explaining the bottom line and discussing the pros and cons of the various courses of action. The legal memo is an appropriate back up for the bottom line advice and you should receive a copy of it—you’re going to get billed for it, (see #7 below to learn how to avoid fainting when you see what it costs to prepare it). But be sure that if the memo is longer than two pages it contains an Executive Summary right at the beginning. That one half page summary gives you the bottom line with clear business oriented advice in language that is easy to understand. Whether you are the General Counsel, a senior executive, an HR Director of a large company, or the owner of your own business, your time is valuable and your lawyer should respect that.
#7 Your Legal Bills Contain Big Surprises
Whether you are a big company with a sizable legal budget or a small business that only incurs legal fees occasionally, the last thing anyone wants is a big unexpected bill to pay. If you are in the middle of a big lawsuit or you have just asked your lawyer for some advice, a review of a handbook or some policies, you should obtain a general idea of the cost in advance of the work being done. A good labor/employment attorney will proactively give you an idea of what upcoming tasks will cost. Sometimes, based on the situation, even an experienced attorney will be anxious to jump into a project that is time sensitive or important to you and will fail to give you an idea of the cost. Then it is your job to affirmatively ask for an estimate or budget. If he or she balks or acts offended, it’s time to look for a new attorney. Even during a protracted and complicated lawsuit you can ask for an estimate of the fees that will be incurred on a monthly basis. Keep in mind that research or drafting projects can become more involved than expected and in litigation there are many unknowns– many times your attorney must do unplanned work in response to an aggressive opponent. Therefore, budgets usually end up being more like estimates. For more certainty you can ask your lawyer for a range of expected fees. The bottom line: your lawyer should not surprise you with large bills. The problem can be easily solved without changing lawyers if you become an educated consumer of legal services and ask for estimates in advance.
#8 After an Initial Meeting You Cannot Get to the Supervising Partner
You cannot always have the top senior partner personally working on every aspect of your case—nor do you always want to. A junior partner, of counsel attorney or associate attorney, (at correspondingly lower hourly rates), can competently do many of the necessary tasks on your matter. However, should you ever feel the need to call the senior partner, your call should be returned promptly. Many times you will feel comfortable about partner involvement because the attorney working on your case will tell you he has discussed the issue with the partner, or you may see the partner’s time on the bill for document review or direction of the associate. The bottom line is—don’t feel you should lose touch with the top-notch lawyer you were referred to in the first place.
Watch for the last installment of this series where we discuss some final thoughts on the importance of broad expertise and peer recognition.