[Note to readers: This is the second part of my blog post on how to discuss fee bill issues with your attorney. If you did not read the first post which was on August 16, I suggest you do so before reading this post. ]
Communicating with Your Attorney
My prior post left off with the assumption that you have identified the specific billing issues you object to and have determined that you have adequate grounds to proceed. The next step is to communicate directly with your lawyer.
Prompt Communication is Important
It is important that you should communicate your concerns as promptly as possible. And if you owe money on the bills at issues, it is especially important that you do not ignore demand letters your lawyer may send seeking payment by thinking that he cannot collect because her bills were in error in some respects. I once had an individual come to me for help with a billing dispute after the lawyer had not only filed a suit for collection, but had received a judgment.
At the very least, if you wait until a lawyer has obtained a judgment for payment of outstanding legal fees, you are not at all in a good bargaining position. About your only option at that point is to file a disciplinary complaint if the billing issue(s) concern an ethical issue. However, note that while a lawyer disciplinary agency may discipline the lawyer for any ethical misconduct, the agency may not able to recover monies paid to the lawyer except in more egregious cases. (More on filing a disciplinary complaint in a later post.)
Back to communicating with your lawyer. One important thing to keep in mind about communications with a lawyer is that all lawyers have an ethical duty to adequately communicate with their clients about their fee bills. See ABA Model Rules of Prof. Conduct (RPC) 1.4 Communications. So if your lawyer refuses to communicate with you promptly and address your concerns, you may have grounds for filing a disciplinary complaint against the lawyer (more on this point later).
Billing for Billing & Billing for Answering Questions on Billing
In communicating with your lawyer on a billing dispute, keep in mind that it can sometimes be a long and drawn out process. Thus, you may be wondering, “will I just be digging myself into an even deeper financial hole by incurring even more legal expenses by trying to negotiate a fee reduction with my lawyer?”
The answer to that question is an easy one. It is an emphatic “NO.” The reason for that no answer is simple. A lawyer cannot bill time to either prepare bills to you or to answer any of your questions on those bills. See, e.g., Inlow v. Estate of Inlow, 735 N.E.2d 240 (Ind. 2000). As I frequently tell people, answering questions about billing statements is about the only truly “free” service you have a right to expect from your lawyer!
Getting it in Writing, Keeping it Civil, and Keeping it Private
All communications with your lawyer on any issue involving the fee bill dispute should be in writing. Even if you communicate orally with your lawyer on your concerns, you should follow up that oral communication with a letter or email that “memorializes” the oral communication.
You may be upset and even very angry about the legal bills you have received from your lawyer. But, you should remember to be polite and maintain a civil tone in your communications with the lawyer. Also do not make a threat to do something unless you are prepared to act on that threat.
Finally, keep your billing dispute private. If you discuss your dispute with friends or relatives (or post it on social media) and accuse your lawyer of billing fraud or unethical behavior and this is repeated to others, your attorney may have a cause of action against you for slander or defamation.
Contacting the Managing Partner or Other Partners in the Firm
If you do not get satisfactory answers from your lawyer or you have come to the point where you cannot resolve the dispute with your lawyer, your next step should be to consider contacting the firm’s “managing partner.” If the firm is small and does not have a managing partner, but there are other partners, those other partners should be contacted.
The reason to bring the managing partner or possibly other partners into the dispute is because ethically and legally, other partners in the firm can be held liable for the overbilling or for the fraudulent conduct of one of their partners. I will cover this issue in more detail in a future post. But for now, just know that other partners in a firm may have a vested interest in seeing that the billing dispute with you is satisfactorily resolved.
As with your communications with your lawyer, your communications with the managing partner or other partners in the firm needs to be in writing.
Next Steps to Take
If you have been unable to resolve a fee bill dispute with your lawyer (or the firm’s managing partner) or the lawyer refuses to discuss or answer your questions, what are the next steps to take? I’ll cover the next steps you can take in the third post in this series.