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September 30, 2017 5:53 AM   Subscribe

Please help me understand whether this legal bill is fair, and if not what I have a right to expect.

I don't have much experience with hiring lawyers. This is my second time and my first was a divorce lawyer, so very different.


I decided to consult a lawyer about whether I should refinance my home with a bank that had pursued me. I had the totally standard application and wanted the lawyer to take a look at it before I decided whether I should even apply to refinance given the length of time I planned to stay in my home.

I went to a local firm based on the reputation of the partners. I was assigned a very young, new lawyer. Fine, it was a simple case.

A day or so before the appointment, I sent over my refinance application, and paid the requested 300$ retainer. I was (orally) told by the secretary, when I asked, that I would be consulted before going over the retainer, and that it was unlikely anyway given my needs.

OK, so the lawyer meeting was underwhelming. He seemed only vaguely familiar with the application. I had a few specific questions, and I recall he sometimes looked through the pages in front of me and suggested I ask the lender to clarify. At one point I felt a bit acid and (politely) explained that the reason I was coming to a lawyer was to ask for clarification of what the application meant outside the lender. Anyway, he did answer a few questions, reassured me that just applying was no big deal, because I could walk away (though he did say I should check with the lender to make sure I really could just walk away after applying. This, for example, is what I wanted to know from a lawyer, not the lender.) After a 45 minute meeting basically the only thing I came away with was reassurance that this was a normal, standard application, and no red flags were evident.

This was 2 months ago. I wrote off the retainer and forgot about it.

Well, I just got a bill for $588.00. They are charging me $288.00 above the retainer. The itemized part says he "prepared" for one hour and then for another 70 minutes.

I am appalled. I would not think a real estate lawyer would even need to prepare for over two hours just to talk about a standard refinance application. He certainly didn't seem very prepared anyway. Plus, what about telling me I'm going over the retainer?

I'm not terribly hardshipped by $288.00 but it feels wrong.

I realize I will probably have to pay it. But if I should just pay without discussing this with the partner at all, please let me know. I've emailed them saying I want to talk to the partner; should I pursue it with them? I'm not going to the mat for this. But my instinct is that I should request they drop it.
posted by flourpot to Law & Government (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

It's worth a discussion, although whether the partner is going to be willing to meet with you depends by personality, since many partners are likely to be billing at rates well beyond the amount in dispute.

Did you sign a retainer agreement at all? It's worth reviewing to see what terms are in there regarding billing disputes and notices over the retainer amount.

In your situation, I would start with an email to the partner, expressing your disappointment in the level of service that you received from the consultation, and the fact that you were not notified for billing over the retainer amount. You're willing to drop this for a credit regarding the overage of $288.

Something simple like:
"Dear Partner,

I recently sought the services of your law firm, based off of your reputation, for a simple consultation regarding some of the legal language in [standard real estate refinance form x,y,z]. During my visit on x,y,z I paid the requested $300 retainer and was informed that I would be notified of any overages.

During my meeting with [Attorney name], I found [Attorney] to be unprepared for the consultation, who at several times suggested I clarify the legal language with the lender, defeating the purpose of my visit with your firm.

The services were not satisfactory and goes against your firm's reputation. Because of this and the fact that I was not notified of the $288.00 in overages, I am requesting that you drop the additional $288.00 in fees, keeping the $300 retainer. If you agree, please reply with a letter notifying me that this invoice has been satisfied for the $300 retainer I've already paid.

Thank you,


Then see where it goes from there. If they refuse, a demand to see the partner might just what you need to push it to get the matter settled since again, dropping the overage is less costly than spending time trying to argue over it.
posted by Karaage at 6:41 AM on September 30, 2017 [33 favorites]

I work in the accounting department of a "big" law firm. Almost everyone whom I've seen ask for a discount gets it, so just politely ask. If an associate did the work, and you feel the work wasn't good, you should be asking the partner who was supervising them. If you aren't sure who that is, just call the accounting department, explain that you're unhappy about your bill, and ask whom you should talk to. They should know.
posted by emumimic at 7:27 AM on September 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


I am appalled. I would not think a real estate lawyer would even need to prepare for over two hours just to talk about a standard refinance application. He certainly didn't seem very prepared anyway. Plus, what about telling me I'm going over the retainer?

Point one: Lots of clients negotiate their bills. All the time.

Point two: in my jurisdiction, unless you specifically instruct a law firm that they are to inform you before billing in excess of the retainer, most firms won't do that. Some lawyers will as a matter of course, but that's because they don't like dealing with the headache of pissed-off clients. Most experienced consumers of legal services will give very specific instructions about when their counsel are to give them a heads-up.

Point three: Real estate law is a pretty wide field. You were going in for help with consumer finance from the consumer side, which is a specialty within a specialty. Somebody who handles leases for commercial landlords, or who helps developers buy land, or who helps a township handle zoning matters, will have little specialized knowledge.

Point four: seconding everything else said above. Send the partner an e-mail saying that given the level of service you received, you did not expect a bill in excess of the retainer. This should not be a surprise to the partner -- there's no way the partner didn't know the associate was clueless about consumer financing.

If you don't get a response from the partner within a week (which is possible given that they pawned off the work to an associate without expertise, then didn't supervise the bill), call up the billing number that should be printed on the bill, and when you get a live person, firmly explain the matter, tell them that you will not be paying the extra $288 and that you consider the situation closed since you have not heard back from the partner, then forward the billing person the e-mail you sent to the partner.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:40 AM on September 30, 2017

Professional services in general--accounting's the same way--you don't want to be a jerk about it, but being a squeaky wheel about your bill usually gets results. Especially when the work's being done by fairly junior people, and when it's small-potatoes stuff, because reputations matter.

When I was doing tax accounting, stuff I did got heavily written down on several occasions, including major projects, without my job ever being in jeopardy--and it helped a lot with me figuring out over time how to do my job better when we reviewed why this happened. Sometimes the clients had unreasonable expectations about their bills, but even then it usually turned out that we needed to be communicating information better to them. Saying something will hopefully help your wallet a bit, and it'll help them do better in future, and there's really basically no down side as long as you're polite and patient about it.
posted by Sequence at 7:51 AM on September 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

You were told you'd be consulted before going over the retainer. Write a letter stating that and ask them to remove the bill.
posted by theora55 at 8:57 AM on September 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's expected that one will go over the retainer, but generally not in the course of the very first meeting! I agree with everyone: you should push back. Negotiation of legal bills is common.

But did you sign a representation agreement? If you did, you should definitely consult it for any provisions on this point, in case the partner is uncooperative.
posted by praemunire at 10:30 AM on September 30, 2017

I work in professional services as well, and I see (and am part of this process) all the time. There's two streams going here: one is that a person who works billable hours is expected to account for their time spent on projects, the other is that some of that time may not be value-added enough to bill on to the customer*. A lot of places make an uncomfortable habit of just billing straight through and only reviewing on pushback. Whether or not a flag is set up to go off if the amount goes over retainer, sometimes it is ignored just to see if there's any pushback.

I'm not saying this is excellent behavior, but that the standard for pushback is really low. A phone call or email is probably enough to get you a credit.

*Which is not to say that some preparation or follow-up time isn't appropriate, but based on what you said I'd guess this person either fluffed up the amount of time spent, or was so completely unfamiliar with the territory that they had to teach themselves the applicable law, which - being a pretty standard bit of legal paperwork - should not be your problem to pay for. If you'd showed up with something super-specific and obscure, that research would be on your dime, but there's a reasonable expectation that a simple real estate contract is something your assigned professional has seen before.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:39 AM on September 30, 2017

I don't know where you live or what kind of law firm it was that you used. But if I read the OP correctly, you were billed $588 for 2.1 hours of services. That's a rate of $280 per hour. Not a very high rate for a junior associate at a biglaw firm with corporate clients, but pretty expensive for the kind of smaller local firm that offers personal consultations to individuals.

When you paid the retainer, did you sign a retainer agreement? If so, this should have explained the firm's billing practices and rates. In terms of the time spent, 1 hour of preparation for a consultation seems reasonable to me. But if you're sure that the meeting only lasted 45 minutes, I have to wonder where that extra 25 minutes came from to get that up to 70 minutes. The bill should be itemized to detail exactly what work was done for each period of time.

Given the fact that you did not find the associate you consulted to be particularly well prepared for your meeting (i.e., familiar with the application) nor expert in the subject matter, it's reasonable to question the bill and ask that it be reduced to only the $300 you have already paid. $588 seems like too much for this kind of work.
posted by slkinsey at 11:51 AM on September 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

They want you to pay $588 for the privilege of being told to go back to your lender and ask him the question because your lawyer doesn't know? Heck, they should be paying you for wasting your time! I'd argue paying anything at all. Definitely push back.
posted by Jubey at 4:39 PM on September 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Clients complain about legal bills all the time and very often the bill is reduced in response. Be polite and explain what happened and I bet they will drop the over-retainer part. It sounds the associate is being pretty aggressive in writing down his time (which is not uncommon for associates, who generally are required to bill a certain number of hours per month, unfortunately.)
posted by Mid at 7:51 PM on September 30, 2017

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