Questions for Your New Attorney, Starting With #1: How Will I Get a Return on My Investment of Legal Fees?

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Has your business avoided contacting an attorney because you’re concerned it could be a “waste” of money?

That’s an understandable concern. Sometimes, attorneys fees are not in fact a good investment.  Perhaps you’ve had a prior experience where you paid an attorney by the hour, and he spun his or her wheels without getting you anywhere.  That is, you did not get a favorable result: your main result was paying out legal fee money.

It’s true that in such instances, your money is poorly invested.  After all, you don’t pay an attorney just to do legal work.  You don’t pay an attorney for fancy briefs or documents.  You pay an attorney to improve your situation: to get a better financial result than you started with.

There are attorneys out there who understand this, and who strive to provide value to clients.

So how do you find an attorney who provides value?  It starts with the questions you ask.

Screening for Value: Good Questions to Ask an Attorney Before Hiring Him or Her

Here are some good questions to ask a new attorney, to ensure that any fees you decide to pay are likely to yield value, i.e. are likely to save or make you more money that what you pay.

(1) “How will I get a return on my investment of legal fees?”

Be blunt.  Ask the attorney what he  or she expects you to gain in exchange for the money you pay.

At the end of the day, if you pay an attorney $500, $5,000 or $50,000, then the attorney should save or earn you more than $500, $5,000 or $50,000.

In some instances, an attorney may work at a flat fee and/or contingency (pay-if-you-win) fee, and may share financial risk with you.  If an attorney is willing to share risk, that’s a good sign.  You sink or swim together, and the attorney thinks you will swim.

(2) “What would be the best-case result for my situation?”

You should ask your new attorney what the best-case result for your legal matter would be. It is important the attorney can quantify a best-case goal, and quantify strategies and means to get you there.

The attorney should be able to translate results into numbers, i.e. financial (money) and statistical (odds or percentage of success) figures.  While an attorney cannot predict or guarantee an exact result or amount of money you would earn or save, the attorney should be able to quantify a range of numbers that are possible, and an approximation of your odds.

In answering this question about best-case results, your new attorney should address: (1) the lowest value of approximate legal fees and costs you could hope to spend; (2) the lowest financial liabilities/exposure, or the highest financial gains, you could hope for; (3) the extent to which you can reduce other negative factors, such as reducing the amount of time and emotion spent on the matter.

If you ask your new attorney to define best-case results from the onset of your matter, this will require both the attorney and yourself to discuss goals, and means of efficiently reaching them. In doing this, you will also better understand the risks involved with the legal matter at issue, what matters are and are not in your control, and how timing and legal decisions along the way play a role in what decisions may be best.

(3) “What would be the worst-case results for my situation?”

You should also ask your new attorney (however difficult the answer may be to hear) what the worst-case result for your legal matter could be.

Of course, the attorney will also likely inform you that such a worst-case result, while theoretically possible, is very rare in the real world.

(4) “What results do you think are most likely for my situation?”

The attorney should– maybe not at day one, but at some point– be able to provide an informed guess as to how a matter like yours will most likely be resolved. The answer will probably be somewhere between the best- and worst- case result.

The attorney will by no means be able to predict with certainty what will occur.  And it may take time (sometimes far beyond the initial consultation) for him or her to investigate the most important facts and law pertaining to your matter, and to give an informed guess as to how things should work out.

But you should still ask the question, from day one, and continue to ask it periodically thereafter.

It’s a good screening question for a new attorney. He or she should give you some legitimate assessment in response, or give you a specific explanation as to what further work and time is needed before that assessment can be made. You should stay in consistent communication with your attorney throughout your matter, discussing how the case is progressing, and whether it may be inching closer to the best-case or worst-case end of the spectrum.

(5) “Can I have an itemization of expected fees and costs?”

You’re surely wondering what your new attorney’s fees will cost, so why not ask?! It has been surprising to me how so many clients ask so few questions about legal fees.  It is only fair that you ask the most questions possible, and get the most certainty possible, as to how much your new attorney’s fees will cost. It is, of course, an important topic.

Most law firms charge fees on an hourly basis. Hourly fees are the traditional method (and acceptable method per ethics rules) of billing. For their advantages, however, hourly fees have the disadvantage of being uncertain. You may know that your new attorney will bill you $250 per hour, but it’s hard for you to guess exactly how many hours (and fees) your legal matter will take to be resolved.

Thus, it is important to get an estimate of fees from your new attorney on day one.

A good estimate/itemization should do several things.

First, it should discuss an expected period or phase of legal work, describe the types of work expected, and give a sense of how long the work could take.

Second, a fee itemization should of course estimate what fees will cost, or (if hourly/speculative) what they are likely to cost.

These things, in sum, give a roadmap of the type of legal work involved, and prompt the parties to think of strategies in light of potential costs and legal developments down the road.

Most attorneys probably will not mind discussing fees or plans in detail. However, from an attorney’s perspective (especially a busy attorney’s) it is helpful that the client ask for such details about fees and plans. Otherwise, the attorney could overlook discussing fees in detail, and perhaps  just assume the client has prior experience with the legal process and understands what types of fees that may be incurred.

When you retain a new attorney, you should establish communications from day one about legal fees, and all other issues and objectives that are important to you.

(6) “What is the game plan?”

A new attorney should have a clear idea of what actions should be taken, by whom, and when.  The attorney should strike you as having a firm handle on the actions and actors involved with your type of legal situation.

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