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Attorney-client relationships come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. As a result, it is not easy to choose the best lawyer for you and your particular matter, especially since so many different qualities and traits go in to making a desirable advocate: for instance, intelligence, judgment, thoughtfulness, articulateness, experience, academic credentials, honesty, and integrity. If you can find that special someone to represent you, you will be way ahead of the game. Oftentimes, you won’t know much about the lawyer until it’s too late to compensate for having made a bad choice.

One of the legal issues that I see regularly with new clients is their having made that wrong choice when it comes to the expenditure of attorney fees and related costs. Just as money issues predominate in matrimonial difficulties, they can become the sore spot of your relationship with your attorney, and lead to all sorts of unpleasantness. Here are some ways to maximize the odds of avoiding the bad feelings, loss of trust, frustration, disgust—and worse—when money becomes a problem in your legal relationship.

As in most sensitive situations, it is best to approach the issue of attorney fees and costs right up front, at the first meeting. Lawyers no less than others are often uneasy about frankly talking about money. But it’s a crucial issue and is generally in the forefront of the relationship even if it is not discussed. Avoiding the issue won’t make it go away, it will only become the source of increasing discomfort. No matter how professionally accomplished is the lawyer whom you are considering, if he is too expensive or not careful enough with your money, find someone else. There are plenty of good lawyers out there who will represent you competently without breaking the bank. If money is no object, you may still feel taken advantage of in the absence of an understanding of how much may be spent, and for what purposes. Where money is in short supply, on the other hand, it is critical that the lawyer know that and that you make a plan, together, on how to keep you out of the poorhouse.

In discussing money early in the relationship, make sure the lawyer understands your goals and any limitations on your resources to meet them. It’s amazing how often I’ve heard stories from new clients who have fled from their attorneys because the latter had no comprehension of how much expensive lawyer time was reasonable to spend on a relatively small matter. The attorney might be drawn to an exciting intellectual challenge—the good ones are—but he or she must always keep in mind that it’s not his or her objectives that you are paying to achieve. So if you have a goal to recoup $150,000 due you under your widget contract, but have figured that it’s worth only $50,000 to make the effort, let the lawyer know that, and keep tabs to make sure he or she is not spending like a sailor to vindicate your more narrow contractual interest.

I was involved in a situation that illustrates what can happen when the top-notch legal practitioner butts heads with the client who did not offer gold from Fort Knox to pay for results. The client, a small record label, had retained one of the top music law firms in a major city to vindicate the client’s rights to record music that had been signed over by an as-yet unknown musician who went on to become a superstar. The client was anything but wealthy or flush with a budget for legal fees, but the law firm charged top dollar. He should have known that, and probably did. But they also told him the representation would cost about $30,000. He approved that amount, but they threw caution to the wind and litigated the case as if their client had unlimited financial resources. Presented with a bill for $150,000, the client was dumbfounded and extremely upset, even though the firm had accomplished the mission. Had there been a written cap on time and expenses, there would have been no dispute and no hard feelings. But because the client refused to pay the outrageous fee, and the firm declined to absorb the expense, a nasty and costly lawsuit ensued, exacerbating the bad feelings and losses of both sides. (The client ultimately prevailed.)

Staying in touch with your attorney is vitally important to regulate spending. Many lawyers are happiest when the client leaves them alone to do their lawyer thing, then pay the freight without question after getting a bill. If you permit such an arrangement, you will be setting yourself up to be unpleasantly surprised by not only the size of the invoice but also by the particular work that’s been done on your behalf. If you and your lawyer speak and meet regularly, he or she will, first, know that you are interested and give you more attention than they would otherwise; second, they will be more cognizant of your spending desires. Keeping in contact will encourage both parties to discuss and approve of what should be done next; if the client understands the need and approves, he will have a much easier time paying for the service and will not likely complain.

You should also obtain your lawyer’s agreement to get your approval before incurring expenditures above a certain amount. For example, you might request consultation before $500 or more is spent on your behalf. That agreement will obviate many bad feelings and harsh words, not to mention the avoidable breakdown of this important relationship. I attribute my ability to avoid fee and expense disagreements to my keen awareness of the importance of avoiding them. I don’t wait for the client to raise the money issue, since I know it’s central to my representation even if it’s unspoken. Rare is the client who is not grateful for my dealing directly with that often touchy subject. Rare is the lawyer-client breakdown that involves something other than money. If you can hire a lawyer who is professionally competent and ethically sterling, and who also has the sensitivity to spend your money as he or she would spend his own, you’ll be a fortune client indeed.

Disclaimer legend following legal articles:

This is not legal advice. This information is provided for educational and informational purposes, only. Nothing here is meant or intended to create an attorney-client relationship. For specific legal advice relating to your situation, contact us or a competent attorney in your jurisdiction.