Help us stop the (legal) bleeding.
February 17, 2012 5:31 AM   Subscribe

Best way to get a law office to stop nickel-and-diming us to death, long after our case has been settled?

Along with the "heavy lifting" of handling my girlfriend's divorce a couple years back, her law office did the typical $25 for sending her a one-sentence email, 50 cents a page for photocopying, $25 per "review" of her file, etc. That was all well and good, and understood as part of the process at the time. Two years after everything was settled, though, she's still getting bills every couple of months for services we don't feel are necessary, or at least not necessarily handled in the (expensive) way they're being handled.

Since the law firm was included in the communication loop with the courts, her ex's pension company, etc., the firm continues to get copied on "residual" memos, receipts, and the like--nothing directly related to hearings or legal representation, just... aftermath stuff. The firm then helpfully sends my girlfriend letters acknowledging receipt of the items, photocopies, emails, etc. (even copies to her ex), all at their usual rates. The bills average about 50 bucks a pop, which for us isn't a small amount right now.

So, my question: What words do we want to use when addressing this issue with the law firm? Essentially what we'd like to say is, "Great job on the divorce guys, but you can stop now. If there's absolutely no way of divesting yourselves from our case, can you at least keep the cost to us to a minimum? Since we get copied on the same communications you do, for instance, we'd rather not get a bill from you for emails saying 'We got this too.' For non-lawyers, this really adds up, so really, don't call us, we'll call you."
posted by Rykey to Law & Government (18 answers total)
Get a new lawyer, geeze! Let someone else handle your business who is doing their job instead of squeezing you like an orange.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:43 AM on February 17, 2012

If you don't need their services anymore, you should contact them about terminating the representation. Once you've ended the relationship, they should have no reason to keep sending you bills.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:46 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You want to terminate representation. Read your retainer on the method necessary, it will probably be a simple letter. There's no need to say anything like "for non-lawtyers, this really adds up". (IANAL, IANYL, etc.)
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:53 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Write a letter to the attorney formally terminating services, cc'ing the ex and any other party that may need to know: pension funds, the ex's attorney, etc.

If something is filed that she needs to know about they know to contact her directly.
posted by readery at 5:55 AM on February 17, 2012

Get a new lawyer, geeze!

you should contact them about terminating the representation.

That's the plan, yes. I need to know what exactly we need to say that formally establishes the end of our relationship. Lawyers, after all, are well-equipped to split hairs about what constitutes "notification" (and bill us accordingly).
posted by Rykey at 5:55 AM on February 17, 2012

Yes, you can terminate their representation of your girlfriend, and I think it would be quite salutary to also explain you're doing so, and that you won't be using their services in the future, because you find their billing practices to be out of line.
posted by orange swan at 5:57 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just write them a letter that says something to the effect of: "Thank you for handling the divorce proceedings of [insert name]. As the matter has been settled, we are terminating our relationship with your firm, effective as of the date above. [Insert firm name] is no longer entitled to act on behalf of [insert name]."

As readery said, cc the ex and any other parties you think should know.

Rules vary by state, but generally they cannot continue to bill you for services after you terminate representation.
posted by melissasaurus at 5:59 AM on February 17, 2012

That's the plan, yes. I need to know what exactly we need to say that formally establishes the end of our relationship. Lawyers, after all, are well-equipped to split hairs about what constitutes "notification" (and bill us accordingly).

The retainer agreement should spell that out; in the event that it's vague, I would send a letter telling them that you are terminating the representation and that they should stop all work on your case. Lawyers are well equipped to split hairs, but if you very explicitly say "stop doing work on this case, you are no longer my lawyer" there's not much in the way of hairs to split (barring your retainer agreement saying something else).

If they keep sending you bills, and you don't pay them and dispute the bills, they'll have to sue you to collect the money, which will require them to go to (probably small claims) court. If they decide to do this (which is not certain, or even necessarily likely depending on the size of the bill and the size of the firm) What you want to be able to do in that court hearing is make it clear that you told them to stop working on the case, and that the charges are for work you didn't authorize. There's not any magic language, you just need to make your intentions clear (barring your retainer agreement saying otherwise, again).
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:05 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another thing to consider and be aware of: when you do send the letter, often the attorney then must notify the court through a notice or motion that they are withdrawing as your attorney of record. Be aware of that and that they will most likely bill you for drafting that document and filing it with the court (may differ according to your state). But, yes, after that they should cease work on your case and cease billing you accordingly.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:35 AM on February 17, 2012

Agree with all of the advice above except there's no reason for your girlfriend to be up in arms about this: because your girlfriend has continued to retain them as her lawyers in this matter, they're actually obligated to review any of the stuff that comes in about the case, even if it turns out to be trivial and unimportant. I'm not saying that she was getting good value for her money; she should have terminated the representation long ago, it sounds like. But she wasn't being ripped off, either.
posted by MoonOrb at 6:44 AM on February 17, 2012 [10 favorites]

send the termination letter in a certified letter
posted by Flood at 6:58 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing sending a termination letter certified...

Also, we had similar issues once with a lawyer who was...erm, an idiot. And a greedy, money hungry one to boot. I'm not of the opinion that this is true of every lawyer and it became a real pain when we began to get the same bills you're speaking of.

From what I understand, your lawyer should document everything they send. You pay a lawyer and then the lawyer takes the money and enters it into a trust from which they pay themselves for services rendered to you. Our remedy was to ask for the accounting of where this money was going. When that was not coughed up in due time or was but was not documented properly, we contacted out state bar association. At that point we were promptly refunded a large sum of money (into the thousands of dollars) because the lawyer had not done what was necessary.

This sounds like a different set of circumstances for you in that you're paying for services AFTER they're rendered but perhaps a call to your state bar association can offer some guidance. Our bar association was great in clearing up our rights as clients over the phone. A short phone call saved us a ton of hassle and in the end, a wad of cash, too. Maybe give that a shot...
posted by youandiandaflame at 7:32 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

MoonOrb is correct. If you have not asked the lawyers to withdraw, they are obligated to continue representing you. That means reviewing documents they receive and making sure your girlfriend has access to them. While they may be greedy, they may also simply be following the rules. Ask them to withdraw from the case and terminate their representation, and they will do so. If they don't, get in touch with the state bar. TINLA.
posted by freshwater at 7:37 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

IAAL and I think there's too much emphasis in this thread on the termination letter. This is fundamentally a client service issue, and the first line of communication should be expressing your dissatisfaction as a customer/client.

As a client who has worked with the lawyer/law firm in a mostly concluded manner, your biggest leverage with your lawyer is your good will and your willingness to refer additional business to them. If your dissatisfaction with being nickel-and-dimed at the end of this process affects your desire to refer future business to that lawyer, you should let them know that. (If you had such a horrible experience that you wouldn't refer future business to them, and they know that, well, then there goes your leverage...)

How you let them know is up to you. A termination letter is certainly one way to do it, but it might be possible to come to an (amicable) understanding about fees in the "tail" period of the representation.

Lawyers have these conversations with clients All The Time, it shouldn't be a surprise to them.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 8:08 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

If they keep sending you bills, and you don't pay them and dispute the bills, they'll have to sue you to collect the money, which will require them to go to (probably small claims) court.

i mean, this is rather drastic a measure without first exploring other, relatively easy things you can do to stop their billing for unnecessary things.

what youdescribed was happening to me with a case my attorneys are still currently representing, although the bulk of the work is over. they were getting copied on documents that they didn't really need by certain parties. i had to contact those parties and ask that they not copy my attorneys on communication that had no real bearing on the case, to only send me that documentation and if i felt it was necessary, i would forward them onto my attorneys myself. i also emailed my attorney and let him know what i did and why. they have since stopped sending me monthly statements for these minor charges.
posted by violetk at 9:54 AM on February 17, 2012

Yeah, I used to represent people on an hourly basis as a lawyer, and I agree that this is lame. It is best practice for a variety of reasons to wrap up the representation formally after the big event is over, and they should have sent you a termination letter on their own. Even if they didn't, it is sill lame to charge you for essentially opening your mail. However, if you plan to use them again if there are any future issues, you may not want to burn bridges.
posted by yarly at 11:34 AM on February 17, 2012

In Canada, every province has a law society that represents the lawyers that work there? Is there one for your State? You can file a complaint with them.
posted by Danithegirl at 12:24 PM on February 17, 2012

Make sure you make some arrangement to stop by every month or so to pick up what they have received, since you don't want to pay them to handle it for you.
posted by megatherium at 2:52 PM on February 17, 2012

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