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. Let me offer an explanation and some exceptions.
First, 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. But let’s keep in mind that 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?
Another expectation is that a “quick question” should only cost a few dollars. But that’s not possible at lawyers’ rates. I bill $200 – 250 / hr. Many lawyers charge twice that or more. So 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). 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 two 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.
(1) I do not bill for contract negotiations
(2) I will grant each pre-paid client up to 15 minutes of free correspondence weekly.