The Importance of Tracking Your Attorney's Fees, Time and Progress



If you've retained a lawyer to represent you in a personal injury case, her fees will be contingent on settling your claim, or prevailing at trial or arbitration. If she doesn't win any compensation, you'll owe her nothing. If she does, you will only owe a percentage of the total amount. You won't receive a monthly invoice from a personal injury attorney.

In civil cases such as a divorce or contract dispute, lawyers either charge a flat fee or by the hour. State bar associations strictly forbid certain types of lawyers from working on a contingency basis.

Hourly Fee Arrangements

In cases where lawyers charge by the hour, they usually require a down payment, called a retainer. The lawyer deducts her hourly fees from the retainer until it's exhausted. You receive monthly statements itemizing the number of hours the attorney and her staff worked on your case, how much of your retainer remains, and the balance you owe (if any).

Before signing an hourly fee agreement, be sure to read it carefully. It's important to know the hourly rates for work done by the attorney, her partners, associate attorneys, and the paralegals at her firm. Ask if your attorney anticipates any additional expenses, including costs for:

  • Expert witnesses
  • Private investigators
  • Court reporters
  • Depositions

Expert witnesses, private investigators, and court reporters all charge for their time, and the cost is always passed on to the client. Whether yours is a personal injury case based on a contingency fee, or a civil case on an hourly rate, you must ask your attorney at the beginning of the case about these possibilities.

Will Your Case Go to Trial?

You should have a general idea of whether or not your case will be litigated. Make sure your lawyer consults with you before filing a lawsuit. A lawsuit can substantially extend the time it will take to finalize your case. While a negotiated settlement may take months to finalize, a trial can take a year or more.

Lawsuits also cost more money. While a negotiated settlement may not require expert witnesses, investigators, or depositions, a trial requires all of them. If your case is based on a personal injury, the costs of litigation can substantially diminish your final compensation.

The same is true for hourly rate cases, although instead of a settlement deduction, you'll be paying the additional trial expenses out-of-pocket. Settling a claim without filing a lawsuit can save money. There's always a chance of losing at trial. Even if you win, the additional trial costs could result in a net loss.

You have a right to have your lawyer consult with you before she decides to spend your money. This is your case. And although you should put your full trust in your attorney, there's nothing wrong with requiring your approval for any financial commitments you ultimately have to pay for.

Checking Progress

There are basically five ways to track your case's progress. The first four apply to personal injury cases. All five apply to other civil case types. It's important that you understand which method to expect before signing your fee agreement.

  1. Weekly or bi-weekly calls to you from the attorney
  2. Weekly or bi-weekly calls from you to the attorney
  3. Bi-weekly or monthly letters from your attorney
  4. Weekly or bi-weekly e-mails from your attorney
  5. Monthly invoices from your attorney

The fifth method is the least preferred. Although monthly invoices from your lawyer will set out the type of services performed for the previous month, the description of those services is usually limited to one or two sentences.

Monthly invoices for hourly-billed cases should detail:

  • The legal services provided to you in the previous month
  • Who performed those services
  • The hourly rate charged for those services
  • The total amount of time spent on your case
  • The remaining amount of your retainer, if any
  • The balance due, if any

In the following example of a typical monthly invoice, the attorney's hourly rate is $300, and the hourly rate charged for the paralegal is $75.

Example of Invoice for Attorney Services

Law Offices of Your Attorney
Street Address
City, State ZIP
 
Re: In the Matter of Person1 v. Person2
  Cause No. 5688A Our File No. 2667-13
 
FOR LEGAL SERVICES RENDERED
 
01.18.13 Reviewed documents left by client  .05 AC
  Dictated representation letter to court  .03 AC
 
01.22.13 Telephone conference with opposing counsel  .07 AC
 
01.25.13 Attend pre-trial hearing; conferred with
opposing counsel
3.5 AC
 
01.30.13 Set up deposition; contacted court reporter
Letter to client to notify him of deposition date
  .05 SL
 
Total Hours 3.65 AC
        .05 IP
 
Total Fees $1,132.50
Retainer $3,500.00
Credit $2,367.50
Balance Due $  --0--

Although the description of services in this lawyer's invoice is concise, it's also vague. The invoice lets you know exactly what you're being billed for, but doesn't give you much insight into what's really going on with your case.

Communication Schedule

Before signing a fee agreement on a personal injury or other civil case, be clear on how your attorney will keep you informed of the status of your case. Don't accept a vague explanation, you have the right to know. Request weekly or bi-weekly calls, letters, or e-mails. Calls from a paralegal are acceptable, as long as you get your questions answered.

Keep in mind, in a civil case other than personal injury, you'll be billed hourly for any communications you have with the attorney or her staff. Bills for weekly calls, letters, or e-mails can add up in the long run. It's up to you to balance your need to stay informed with your desire to save on hourly billing.

Clarifying the method and frequency of communication in personal injury cases has another effect. If you know you'll be hearing from your attorney or her staff on a consistent basis, you'll be less stressed and less likely to become an unwelcome burden to them.

Don't Be a Pest

Successful lawyers handle many cases at once, so they have little time and patience for overly demanding clients. When a client is constantly calling or coming into the office without an appointment, some lawyers try to get rid of the annoyance by settling the case as quickly as possible, often for less than it might have been worth.

Whether you have a personal injury or other civil matter, be sure you and your attorney are clear on the method of communication. Both of you will avoid unnecessary frustration and anxiety. A smart lawyer knows the quickest way to create a disgruntled client is by failing to keep the client informed of his case progress.

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