Perhaps the easiest and surest way to cut down on your legal fees is to communicate efficiently and effectively with your lawyer. What this means that you tell your lawyer a lot of information in a relatively short timeframe and with minimal time wasted in administering your file (efficient communication) and that the information you give is relevant and helpful to your case (effective communication.) Not only will this save you money, it will maximize your lawyer’s effectiveness and ensure that he or she has the information required to defend your best interests. You can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your communication by planning and exercising control over telephone conversations, e-mail communications, and lettermail.
a) Control over e-mail and telephone communications
One aspect of the billable hour that clients often overlook is that lawyers do not bill by the second or by the minute. Every lawyer I know of bills in the same fashion - by minimum increments of one tenth of an hour, or six minutes. Practically speaking, what this means to you is that, even if your lawyer spends thirty seconds answering a phone call related to your file, he or she will bill you for six minutes. This fashion of billing acts as a rough measure of the time the lawyer needs to retrieve your file, reacquaint him or herself with its contents, document the phone call in written notes, and file those notes back away. Even a very short phone call or e-mail involves all of these steps. Needless to say, these little chunks of billable time add up very quickly and can represent an unwelcome surprise when you receive your first bill. If you call or e-mail your lawyer every day, (or multiple times a day) with short questions, the majority of your bill might actually be comprised of short, ineffective telephone or e-mail communications.
With this information in mind, you can cut down on your legal fees by making every minute count when communicating with your lawyer. (Note: If what you have to say is urgent, don't concern yourself too much about legal fees - the message is probably worth the money, even if it only lasts for a minute or two.) If you're asking procedural questions or questions about the progress or status of your file, these can often be answered by your lawyer's assistant, who will either not charge you or will charge you at a far lower billing rate than your lawyer. If in doubt of whether the assistant can answer your question, speak to your lawyer. If it's a question that you must ask directly of your lawyer, it is probably worth your while to plan out what you want to say in advance. Ask yourself:
- Are there any other questions related to the one you want to ask?
- Is there anything you don't know or don't understand about your file?
- Did you have anything else you wanted to tell your lawyer about your current situation? (For example: Has your spouse been acting unusually recently? Has your access or custody to your children been obstructed or denied? If your spouse has agreed or is required to pay support payments, have you been receiving child or spousal support payments on time or at all? Are you suffering from any new injury, sleeplessness, excessive anxiety, or depressive symptoms as a result of your spouse's behaviour? The list goes on. If things are going well and you have no complaints, say so. It's better not to assume the lawyer knows things are running smoothly.)
Write down your questions and points you want to tell your lawyer, and make sure your lawyer deals with all of your questions and concerns to your satisfaction. If you don't understand something, ask for clarification. Remember, your lawyer is there to help you. Don't be afraid to ask questions. You deserve to understand what is going on with your file, and you are almost certainly better served by a single six-minute call that provides valuable information to you and your lawyer than by six one-minute calls providing the same (or usually less) information at six times the cost.
b) Control over lettermail
Another feature of retainer agreements that clients often gloss over when hiring a lawyer is that the lawyer will generally, as a matter of course, photocopy and send documents received on your behalf to you, along with a brief reporting letter to explain what was received and what it means. This practice ensures that you remain up-to-date with respect to the goings-on in your file, so that you can give informed instructions to your lawyer when something happens on your file. Being informed about what's happening with your file is essential to your success in litigation, but you are also generally being charged for every document photocopied and every letter written. As with telephone calls, these small charges can easily snowball and add a substantial sum to your legal fees.
If you would rather not receive copies of all correspondence as it comes in, ask your lawyer if he or she (or preferably his or her assistant) will simply let you know of new correspondence by way of a short phone call or e-mail. If you would like a copy, you can request one at that time and pick it up yourself, or have it mailed to you. Ask if it is possible to get an electronic copy of what was sent, particularly if your lawyer operates a ’paperless’ office and already has an electronic copy on file. You should also be able to inspect the original of the document if you don't want the copy at all - while your lawyer will not want you to remove any part of your original file from the office, you are entitled to look at your file from time to time.