I would like to address one of the most misunderstood and potentially contentious issues in the attorney-client relationship: communications and billing. I offer my first half-hour consultation for free — but only the first half hour, ever, for the lifetime of each client. All too frequently, clients get the mistaken impression that all communication will be free. Every time you reach out to me, I will assume that you are authorizing me to properly read or listen to your questions and to properly address them. And for the most part, you should expect that time to be billable.
This is common practice in the legal profession, but I know from my own experience and others’ that the “$40 email shocker” is still one of the most frequent unpleasant surprises between lawyers and clients.
Why is there this disparity in expectations? Why does a client feel that it should be free to talk to a lawyer? Perhaps it’s because other service providers such as car mechanics and even doctors offer limited communications free of charge. Let me remind you of two key differences:
- The mechanic or the doctor bills for physical actions — fixing your car or scanning your organs. By contrast, an attorney’s job is entirely linguistic. Answering legal questions and providing advice is part of what we do for a living! And how else can we answer questions and provide advice but via phone or email?
- The car mechanic is probably on salary. A solo attorney like me earns his income hourly. When I am answering your questions, I am forfeiting my ability to work for others. I really have no choice but to bill for that time, even if you want to talk about sports. How would you feel if you were in the middle of a workday, billing hourly, and someone came in and asked you to give some of your time away for free? I think you’d feel that she was taking advantage of you.
Another expectation is that a “quick question” should only cost a few dollars. That’s simply not possible at lawyers’ rates. I bill $200 – 250 / hr. Many lawyers charge twice that or more: you will be paying $3 – 8 / minute. Let’s face it, questions never take one minute. We lawyers round off our billable time in increments of at least 0.1 hours (6 minutes). I round to the nearest 1/4 hr (15 minutes). Even if I give you a brief email response like, “Yes,” it might have taken me 15 minutes of research to find that answer. When you multiply the hourly rate by this fraction of an hour, you usually get a minimum bill of $40 – 50 per call or email.
I offer some exceptions to this rule. I do this for the express reason of meeting the client at a reasonable middle-ground. Giving up a few dollars or minutes here or there is worth it to me to prevent shocking and angering clients.
- I do not bill for contract negotiations involved in large cases (over $1,000). When there’s a lot at stake, I want to make sure we get it right and express our expectations clearly up front.
- I will grant each pre-paid client up to 15 minutes of free correspondence weekly.
- I bill correspondence of a “secretarial” nature at a 50% discount. This includes questions about scheduling and billing, instructions, and administration of small matters. Many attorneys have an assistant answer basic questions for a low cost, which is built into legal billable hours. As I don’t have that luxury, I personally answer all calls and emails myself; I feel that the discount is a fair compromise.
Small matters are often dominated by client emails. It’s not worth my time to bill for a fraction of an hour of legal work that involves over an hour of client correspondence. For this reason, I set a two-hour minimum. Nevertheless, I will take care to characterize your emails as administrative or substantive, and the administrative emails will be discounted.
As you can probably imagine, I spend a large fraction of every workday answering client emails. It’s very easy for just 5 – 10 messages to turn into 1 – 2 hours of research and response. As much as I like to be helpful, I simply can not offer all of that time for free. Otherwise, I know from experience that the questions multiply rapidly. I also know from experience that these emails will either involve important questions (for which my time is valuable) or a client’s interest in controlling the case, thereby indirectly controlling my time (for which a charge is appropriate and necessary to keep it to a minimum).
I know that my time is expensive. For your sake, I apologize for that. But the solution is simple. Please recognize the costs associated with your phone calls and emails. Then prioritize and economize to make sure that you are spending your money wisely on the most important issues in the most efficient manner possible. As a rule of thumb, you should expect that every email or phone call, no matter how small, could cost $50.
A huge thanks for your understanding!!
Scot S. Fagerland, Esq.