So you have got yourself a lawyer, but you have a niggling feeling that things are not working as they should. What can you do? There are a few good questions you can ask that will help to develop the relationship with, and get you better results from, your lawyer. It can also help you sort out whether they are the type of lawyer that wants those things also.
Challenge your lawyer
The best way to improve things is to challenge your lawyer and freely ask direct questions. It is up to the lawyer to adjust their approach, rather than expecting you to accommodate their ways. If your lawyer cannot answer these questions in a way that seems reasonable to you, that is a red flag. Don’t ignore it.
Here are three important questions that you should not be afraid to ask your lawyer.
1. Am I using you efficiently?
You may think that, surely, your lawyer will tell you if you are using them inefficiently. This is not the case. Some lawyers will be happy if you use them inefficiently as it enables them to charge higher fees and take longer on your work. Sometimes a lawyer can also feel uncomfortable to tell a client that they are briefing them poorly and that there is a better way to communicate with the lawyer.
So, ask your lawyer whether you are using them efficiently. Put another way, ask your lawyer whether they think that they have been briefed clearly and efficiently by you. You may be surprised by the answer. The lawyer will hopefully be able to make the process more efficient, and it may also enable you and your lawyer to find that common ground that enables true engagement and far better commercial outcomes.
One of the key areas that drives efficiency in the client/lawyer relationship is how you are briefing your lawyer. A good lawyer will help you fully understand the problem and assess your brief before they start work. The client, in putting together a brief, puts the problem into words as seen from the client’s perspective. This is natural and to be expected, but in doing so the client will often totally misconstrue the potential legal problem and could, in doing so, mis-brief the lawyer. A poor lawyer will not take the time to question whether the client has briefed them properly and will just answer the question they have been asked.
2. How can I reduce my legal fees?
The question of how a lawyer charges is a vexed one. Obviously it is one of the most important issues to you as the client, who should feel comfortable to have an open discussion with your lawyer about it. A common response by a lawyer will be that they calculate their fees on the number of hours spent. This is not a proper answer, and just deflects from the real issue. It is entirely fair for you to understand how your lawyer charges and to be very comfortable with it. It is also fair to explore what else can be done, other than standard options like a bulk retainer (which is just buying more of your lawyer’s time in advance). You should not be afraid to question how an hourly rate can truly reflect the value of the lawyer’s advice..
At best an hourly rate should be a guide only, not something fixed in stone. A flat rate or fixed fee could work better for you.
If you feel you have been overcharged, then you should discuss that with the lawyer to see if the charge can be modified in future to better reflect the value of the work. If you do not question the fee, the lawyer will never change.
You may also find that you are being charged for the work of more than one lawyer, or for extra time that you feel an expert should already know. If it looks like you are being charged for too many lawyers, or too much time, you probably are. Ideally you should be charged for the work of one lawyer, and you should expect that for expert advice, the lawyer can streamline the advice and find efficiencies. So feel free to challenge your lawyer to refine ways to reduce their fees. You’ll never know if you don’t ask.
3. Can I ask you some general questions without charge?
There is an old joke which may help here: “A man went to a lawyer and asked what his fee was. “$1000 for three questions,” answered the lawyer. “Isn’t that a little steep?” said the man. “Yes,” said the lawyer. “Now, what’s your third question?”.
Another important question to ask your lawyer is whether you can ask general questions without being billed for it. Some lawyers take a very strict approach that if their time is being taken up by the client, then the clock is running, and the client is charged for every 6 minutes. This can have no bearing on whether the advice is of any real value to you. Again, it can also encourage the lawyer to take longer to solve a problem.
If you can ask general questions of your lawyer at any time about your business, or legal matters, such as upcoming plans, without needing a formal legal advice, you can get a better handle on how to use your lawyer efficiently and reduce legal fees. Your lawyer can better understand the nuanced intricacies of your business. It is equally important for the lawyer to be available for such discussions outside of a charging environment. Such a dialogue will go a long way in developing a more workable relationship between the client and the lawyer.