“Dennis, I am a superior court judge in a city where your column is very popular. In fact, for many years at one outlying courthouse, the judge taped each week’s story to the front door for the public to read.
“Today, so many TV shows, movies and lawyer ads have created a false image of how easy and inexpensive it is to hire an attorney. More than ever before judges are seeing the results of a failure to explain the financial facts of life to clients.
“These issues would make for an interesting article, especially with your ‘Leave it to Beaver’ sense of humor!”
A comforting shoulder
When lawyers get together socially, much as wives complain to each other about their husbands (generally, with good reason) and husbands complain about their wives to their buddies (sometimes justifiably) lawyers gripe about those clients who we wish had never heard of us.
Emotionally, the practice of law can be deeply rewarding, allowing us to save the world - of an individual, a family or small business–but this isn’t a happy line of work. Lawyers deal with people who have legal problems and problem people. To many, we fill the role of a member of the clergy or mental health care professional - always there to listen, a shoulder to cry on, someone who will dive into murky waters to help.
But paying for the time with that comforting shoulder? To some clients, that’s a different matter, for which we are largely responsible.
'No one works for free'
For many years, Ruth Carter was a mental health care professional, “Which was excellent preparation for what I do now as a lawyer,” she told You and the Law.
“In seminars for attorneys who go out on their own, I stress these critically important points about money which lawyers need to make clear from the very first meeting with a client and presented in a conversational manner which encourages questions:
- Most of the work I do is billed on an hourly basis, just like an auto mechanic, a plumber or electrician, with separate charges for parts and labor. In law, we call these: fees and costs. Fees are what I am paid for my time or that of other lawyers and support staff working on your case.
- Personal injury cases — such as auto accidents — are generally handled on a Contingency Fee Basis, where fees are a percentage of the amount obtained through settlement or trial. If there is no settlement or if we go to trial and lose, then I am not owed any fees. But you could still be responsible for my costs.
- Costs are all those things which are necessary to either begin your case — such as the court filing fee — or which support the case: obtaining medical records, police reports, hiring experts who evaluate your case, prepare a report and testify, private detectives, travel, depositions, to list just a few.
- I know this will sound harsh or sarcastic, but please understand that as much as I want to help you, I have to eat. We all have obligations to our family, to pay the bills of everyday life, and in a law firm, my staff.
- If I am not billing — or not being paid — then I am not making money. The only thing that creates income for lawyers is our time and advice. That’s what we sell.
- There are many reasons a lawyer will not accept a new case, and often it comes down to a client who just cannot afford to hire the lawyer. It isn’t that I do not want to help or don’t care, or that you do not have a good case. It is just that I can’t work and not be paid.
When a conscientious lawyer agrees to take on a new client, one of the most important of any professional relationships has just been established. Clients expect — and have the right — to competent representation, and the lawyer’s full attention. As Carter points out, it is a two-way street:
“Clients need to understand and accept their obligations, one of the most important is to pay our bills promptly. It’s not just about money, but hearing one excuse after another can have major, negative consequences on the case,” she explains.
“When you hire me, we are engaged, but if you don’t pay me, the result is that I feel not respected and being used for your personal gain. This is how lawyers react, and it isn’t good for their clients.”
Next time: It’s not what you believe. It is what you can prove.
Ruth Carter’s website is a “must visit” for anyone who blogs and wants to keep out of legal hot water. www.carterlawaz.com.