How an attorney calculates your bill

You’ve heard the commercials, “you don’t pay unless I collect.” Well, in most states the law prohibits this sort of fee arrangement in divorce, child custody, and child support cases. Therefore, your attorney will probably charge by the hour. There are other fee arrangements, such as the “flat fee”, but I tell people that no attorney worth his salt will agree to charge a flat fee when he has no idea the time that may be involved in a particular case. So, if your attorney charges a flat fee, he probably is not familiar enough with the law to fully appreciate all the scenarios that may play out in your case. Therefore, if you find an attorney that will charge a flat fee…RUN…he probably doesn’t know what he is doing!

So, when an attorney charges by the hour, that hour is broken into six-minute increments. The first six minutes is .1 (or one-tenth) of an hour…the second six-minutes is .2 (or two-tenths)…and so on. Generally, any portion of a six-minute increment is billed as if you used the whole six minutes. For instance, if you spoke on the phone with your attorney for six minutes and one second, because you went over the first six-minute increment, it is generally billed at .2 (or two-tenths) of the attorney’s hourly rate. Likewise, if you have a two-minute telephone conversation, although it is less than six minutes, it is billed at the full six-minute increment (or .1).

What many clients fail to realize is that most lawyers bill for every phone call made to the client, every phone message received from the client, every correspondence regarding the client’s case that the attorney received, every correspondence drafted in response to a correspondence, every email received, every email response drafted, etc. Each one of these tasks is billed as a separate task and is billed as a separate item at a separate six-minute increment.

So, if you make a phone call in the morning and leave a message for your attorney, then follow up with an email, then call again later that same day, no matter how important (or unimportant) your question is, it likely costed you three-tenths (.3) of an hour in billable time. If your attorney’s billable rate is $300 per hour, then you likely spent about $90 before ever talking with your attorney. Add a thirty-one-minute telephone conversation to that and you are probably at a grand total of $240 on that burning question that you had.

Now we can have a discussion over whether this is fair, but unfortunately it is generally permitted by the rules that govern attorney billing. So, like it or not, it is the reality. That said, a few good attorneys (myself included) routinely extend good faith discounts to the client, reducing their bills significantly if paid on time. But there still is no such thing as “free time” or “pro bono” when it comes to good, family law attorneys. Time is an attorney’s stock-in-trade. Just as product inventory is the lifeblood of Wal-Mart, time is the product/inventory that an attorney is selling. And that time should be priced based upon an attorney’s quality and experience.

After practicing for nearly a decade, I finally purchased a big, beautiful boat. I loved that boat. I was proud of that boat. I took great care of that boat. But despite how much I maintained the boat, I learned that “boat” is simply an acronym of for “Break Out Another Thousand”. It seemed every time I turned around, I was dropping a grand on the boat. I’m sure that for the average client, it seems that way with lawyers too. Just remember that everything to do with your case is billable, and good attorneys are not cheap.

So, the moral of the story is that before you contact your attorney, ask yourself if the question you want to ask, or if discussion that you want to have is worth about $100 or more. Because that is likely what it will cost you.

Please note that some questions are definitely worth it. Lisa was a client who hesitated to call me about canceling her “no-good” husband’s car insurance. The temporary order (that was poorly drafted by another lawyer) stated that her husband was responsible for his personal bills during separation and while the divorce was pending. Lisa reasonably felt that “personal bills” included her husband’s car insurance. Unfortunately, she did not know that the judge in that county had a specific standing order requiring parties to maintain the status quo on car insurance unless otherwise addressed in an order of the court. That was definitely a phone call that was worth the billable time Lisa incurred. I am glad that Lisa did call me before violating the judge’s standing orders. Otherwise, she would have incurred the wrath of the judge and the possibility of thousands of dollars in liability. Fortunately, I helped Lisa get back into court to get an order from the judge that did specifically address the car insurance…so that her “no-good” husband (Lisa’s description) could pay for his own car insurance!

Common sense dictates here. Again, while it may be comforting just to hear from your attorney and to talk to someone who will reassure you regarding your case, it is not always cost-effective or worth a few moments of comfort for hundreds of dollars in fees. So, use your time with your attorney wisely. Don’t waste time. Write out your questions before you call. Try to use email. Let your attorney worry about the minutia of details involved in the case; you simply follow your attorney’s instructions and ask only important questions when commonsense dictates.

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