Earlier this week I wrote an article discussing how entrepreneurs and small businesses can actually afford to hire an attorney at the critical early stages of their business venture by working out payment plans to cover the full cost of an attorney’s fee.
However, I wanted to touch on the subject of affording legal services again to address something I’ve noticed in my years of practice — most people have absolutely no idea how much an attorney costs. This is likely attributable to both the wide disparity in what attorneys, even ones in geographic proximity and with similar experience, charge, as well as the large degree of secrecy some attorneys place on their fees. This leads prospective clients to have wildly varying expectations of what an attorney will cost. In my experience, I’ve had prospective clients absolutely sink in their seats when they hear that the hours of work they’re going to need is going to cost more than $200 (probably not realizing that at that rate I’d be working at slightly above minimum wage!), while other clients have near lept out of their seats in joy upon finding out that the contract they need drafted isn’t going to cost thousands upon thousands of dollars.
Perhaps this is reflective of people’s various financial states — when $200 is a lot of money (and I’m in that camp too!) and you know that lawyers are supposed to be “expensive” you may set your expectations accordingly; conversely, when you hear of big law firms charging $500 to $1000 an hour and budget accordingly, you may not realize that a smaller law firm or solo attorney typically doesn’t need to charge that, because they don’t have the overhead that a large firm does.
Nevertheless, also in my experience I’ve found that some prospective clients are nervous at the mere prospect of what an attorney will cost, and will break off communication before even getting to the money question. When speaking with prospective clients, I am open to any and all questions they have, but only rarely in my initial communications will a prospective client ask me to at least ballpark what my services will cost. I’m happy to do so, obviously putting down a big caveat that I can’t give a solid fee quote until I’ve had some discussions with the prospective client and had an opportunity to throughly think about the scope of the matter; moreover, the less information I know about the matter when I get asked to ballpark, the bigger the ballpark is going to be.
So if you’re initial conversations with an attorney, don’t be afraid to ask for a ballpark. Of course, depending on how early the conversations are, the attorney may not have enough information to give an estimate; also, there are certain kinds of legal matters that are simply not estimable, such as litigation or bankruptcy. It may also be easier for attorneys who work by flat fee to give an estimate, than lawyers who work by hourly fee. Finally, remember that an estimate is just an educated guess based on the attorney’s experience handling similar matters — your matter, due to various factors, may end up costing less or more, particularly if the scope of the matter changes.
(As a final aside note, please don’t ask to negotiate our fees. If you simply can’t afford the fee, as my previous blog post suggests, try to work out a payment plan. If an attorney wants to give a discount for a repeat client or to get a payment-in-full, that’s fine, but asking us to discount our fees simply isn’t fair to our other clients who paid in full.)