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Fee Disputes

No matter what amount of money you are spending on a lawyer's services, you want to ensure that you are receiving the services you are paying for. Paying more money than you should or expected to for legal fees can be a frustrating experience, which could otherwise mar a solid attorney-client relationship.

There are many ways to handle a billing dispute to protect your pocketbook.

Fee Arrangements and Fee Agreements

Most attorneys will have a written fee agreement for clients to sign at the beginning of their representation. That way, everyone knows how the case will be handled and what the client is expected to pay for the attorney's services.

Some cases are handled with a flat fee. Typically these cases are simple, such as drafting a will or a traffic ticket case.

Other cases are handled with a contingency fee, which means the attorney will only be paid if they win the case. The fee is often a percentage of the amount recovered for the client. Clients are still required to pay for other costs of the case, like filing fees and expert fees. Personal injury cases are normally contingency fee cases.

Some cases are handled with a retainer and fees by the hour. A retainer is an amount of money you pay upfront to the lawyer while they bill you based on the time they spend on your case. You will receive an itemized bill each month of what the attorney and their staff have done on your case. Family law cases are often handled this way.

What Should You Do When You Receive Your Bill?

When you receive a bill from your lawyer, it's essential to look closely to see what they are charging you for. In most cases, lawyers will provide an itemized statement detailing each service charge. This can include charges for:

  • Meetings
  • Phone calls, emails, and other correspondence
  • Drafting motions and other documents
  • Working with outside experts
  • Trial preparation, including legal research and witness interviews
  • Court-related costs like filing fees and service of parties or witnesses
  • Actual time spent in court

If you think the bill contains an error or something you did not agree to, you should contact your lawyer and try to resolve the problem in an amicable manner. Bring a copy of your fee agreement to show your lawyer why you think there was a billing error.

In many cases, lawyers will negotiate a positive outcome. You may need more detail to understand why the lawyer did not make a specific charge in error.

Arbitration for Resolving Billing Disputes

If you cannot resolve your problem, many state and local bar associations offer fee-arbitration programs to resolve these disputes.

Arbitration panels and committees offer an out-of-court forum to settle disputes between lawyers and clients. In general, arbitration is a simpler process than going to court. Either the client or the lawyer involved in a fee dispute can request arbitration by writing to the appropriate authority. Both parties need to agree to the process and often it's binding arbitration, which means both parties are bound by the decision.

If you don't want to use arbitration to resolve a billing dispute, you may need to hire another attorney to represent you and protect your interests. If the issue is more than just a billing dispute and you believe the attorney has made a mistake in how they handled your legal matter, you may have a claim for legal malpractice. This is very difficult to prove and may require that you hire legal representation to help you navigate your malpractice claim.

Financial Losses Through Attorney Misconduct

For losses suffered by a lawyer's conduct, you might be able to recover some of your losses through a client trust fund. Many of these funds are run by state bar associations or state courts. Typical losses reimbursed by funds like these include the theft of:

  • Estate and trust assets
  • Escrow deposits in real estate transactions
  • Settlement money in personal injury litigation
  • Debt collection receipts

These funds can also reimburse clients for money embezzled in investment transactions with law clients and unearned fees paid in advance to lawyers who falsely promise their legal services. If you want more information about client protection funds, you can read more at the American Bar Association's website.

When you hire a lawyer, make sure you understand what you are paying for their legal advice and how you are making those payments. If you have questions about your bill, you should start with your attorney, but you may need to hire an experienced attorney to help you if that doesn't work. If you want to learn more, check out these FindLaw articles:

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Attorney Fees and Agreements

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