This is Part II in my series on how to make hiring an attorney more affordable. This post covers selecting an attorney and preparing for the first meeting to set yourself up to save money.
You may have read my earlier post, “Do I Have to Have an Attorney?” and realized you need one, but now how to afford one? The American Bar Association estimates that about 70% of people do not hire an attorney when they need one and the number one reason is the cost. Mediation is, of course, a far less expensive way to end a litigation matter than a trial, but what about the costs of attorney's fees before you even get to mediation?
Here are some ways you can help control that cost.
If you missed my first set of tips, you can find it here: 5 Surprising Ways to Save on Attorney’s Fees.
1) Think about more than the hourly rate. While budget-conscious people often balk at higher hourly rates, be aware that hourly rates don’t determine your total bill. Attorneys that charge less per hour may take longer to do things. An inexperienced attorney can easily take more than twice as long to do things as an experienced one and the lack of experience could come back to bite you. If you’re paying by the hour, this could mean higher expense than using an attorney with a higher billable rate. Your best bet is to hire an attorney who has experience with your particular type of situation—they will be the most efficient at dealing with your case and efficiency is money when you’re paying by the hour—and to ask a lot of questions about what they do to keep your total bill reasonable. For example, you might ask if the attorney limits who attends meetings, hearings, etc. to a maximum of 1 attorney and 1 paralegal/legal assistant vs. sending multiple attorneys and/or paralegals to meetings and billing all of their time.
2) Ask about the attorney’s staff. An experienced attorney with efficient assistants, skilled paralegals, and/or well-educated associate attorneys may be the best possible way to get sound legal advice combined with efficient use of your dollars. Experienced attorneys with good staff will save you money by delegating tasks to her or his staff and/or associates based on their capabilities. Legal Assistants and Paralegals are often billed at as little as 1/3 the rate as a senior attorney and associate attorneys may be as little as ½. But—and this is an important but—the senior attorney is still responsible for supervising all the work performed. Meaning, the time costs you less, but you still benefit from the experience of the attorney you hired. Be sure to ask about the associates/support staff and what kind of work gets delegated to them when you meet with an attorney. If the answer is filing and mundane tasks only, that’s not going to save you a lot of money. If the answer is conducting, analyzing, and summarizing legal research; drafting motions, orders, briefs, memorandum, letters, discovery requests, etc.; managing and working with clients to draft discovery responses; analyzing and summarizing case information; preparing and managing exhibits, etc., now you’re talking.
3) Consider your emotions. Understand that the law is unemotional and objective. It doesn’t care who hurt the other person’s feelings more or who was rude or disrespectful. The law doesn’t deal much with emotional responses (except in extreme cases that directly result in financial or physical harm). If you are angry, hurt, bitter, etc. (as most people involved in litigation are), consider seeking counseling from a mental health professional. They usually charge less per hour and are more equipped to help people work through emotions. That doesn’t mean you can’t burst into tears when you tell your story to an attorney—trust me, you won’t be the first or the last—but it can save you a lot of money to organize your story around facts rather than emotions, which leads to the next tip . . .
4) Take control of your story. Objectivity and organization are your friends when you meet with an attorney. The more concise you can be in communicating the most pertinent facts, the better. Less is more. The attorney will ask you what they need to know if you’ve left something important out. Hone your story to a brief, chronological story of the facts before you meet. If writing helps you organize your thoughts, spend some time writing down what you think is pertinent. Set it aside and read it out loud 24 or more hours later. You will remember more. You will realize you misstated things. Human memory is unreliable. Look through your social media posts, photos, emails, texts, account statements, doctor’s bills, etc. to help you confirm when things happened, what they cost, etc. Correct any misstatements. If you hate to write, make a voice recording. Try using voice-to-text so you can get a written version of it. But you will still want to review, revise, and confirm with objective information sources. Getting dates right is especially important—some dates may determine statutes of limitations, which are time limits to take legal action. If those dates are missed, you have no legal recourse.
5) Ask about cost when you book your appointment. People are often caught off guard when they get their first invoice from an attorney if they discover they were charged for all or part of the first meeting. Attorneys can be bad about assuming everyone knows that they do/do not charge for the first meeting. Many attorneys offer a number of minutes of free consultation while many others will charge from minute one. Ask when you call if you will be charged or not and if there is a time limit. If you’re getting 30 minutes free, you’ll want to try to hone your story to 10 minutes or less to leave plenty of time for discussion.
6) Take control of your supporting documents. Part of preparing your story should also be gathering the supporting “documents” related to your case (“documents” means everything tangible including receipts for your expenses, medical records of your injuries, emails, texts, audio recordings, videos, social media posts, contracts, letters, invoices, etc.—anything that potentially documents your story objectively). Cull through your “documents.” Organize your documents like-with-like. Be sure to follow my recommendations in my prior post to minimize the cost of the staff processing, analyzing, and filing these documents. In addition to the tips in that post, consider providing an electronic scan of your documents in searchable PDF format and putting them on a USB thumb drive along with any video/audio recordings with the files named clearly (<year-month-day> <name of source, such as BankName Statement> <relevance, such as DownPayment> works well). It will be faster (and, therefore, cheaper) if you’ve already provided your attorney with both paper copies and electronic files that are logically organized and clearly labeled.
Up next: Surprising Ways to Save on Legal Fees After You've Hired An Attorney.