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Question About Legal Billing


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I have a friend who's been in a rather nasty divorce/custody battle and her lawyer hasn't been following through, plus he had her pay a flat fee to go to trial, but never took her to trial.  She paid him $10,000 at the beginning in December of 2013 and then in April of 2014, they said her $10,000 ran out and she needed to pay another $10,000.  So she did even though they didn't give her a break down of all the charges.  It's a long story, but she's gone to a couple other lawyers for consultations and they're going, "Flat fees?!  Who does that?"  One lawyer said he will help her, but first she needs to get money back from her lawyer because it's not going to be free.  She said he should be able to give her a breakdown and give her any balance she has remaining.  Her lawyer said, "That's two years of emails, phone calls, etc. It's going to take us at least 30 days to figure that all out."

Shouldn't they be documenting that all along the way?  She's going to file a grievance and I wanted to know if there's some kind of law, code, etc. she can site that he's in violation of.  Seems crazy to me that he can just go dig up everything over the last two years when he never gave her and accounting of the first $10,000 she paid.  He's saying her doubts there's anything leftover.  Um, shouldn't he already know that? 

And a whole other issue is that he made promise after promise about how he was going to take action, but didn't.  It's almost like he's afraid of going to court. 

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I've only been involved in one lawsuit (contractor) and every month we got a statement from our attorney's office outlining every charge, down to the smallest like phone call minutes... letters sent, etc

At no time did we not know exactly what and how much we owed...

GG

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I have used a number of different law firms in my professional capacity as an investment manager for pension funds.  I have never seen a flat fee or any bill from an attorney without an accompanying list of fees charged and for what service was completed.

Lawyers are notoriously bad at padding legal bills; however, when you find an attorney you trust and is efficient and excellent at what she/he does they are a godsend.  

From the description given I would be very uncomfortable with this law firm.  It certainly has a distinct smell of something rotten.  

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There is supposed to be a written agreement for any matter where more than $500 in fees is expected. (Your state rules could vary.)   It could be an exchange of emails, but it is more common to be a several page document signed by both parties.   That should describe the agreement.

It is common to charge a minimum of .1/hr as minimum for receipt of an email or reply.  And the same for phone calls.   I tell my clients to find someone they can vent to, because they cannot afford to use me for that purpose.   I once plead with a client who was paying me more than 2K per month to do this, to quit wasting her money this way (she never did).  So any retainer can go fast.   

Attorneys and clients can agree on any arrangement they want, so long as the fees are reasonable.   Wise attorneys keep contemporaneous records of the time spent, and bill monthly against the retainer.   I can see why an atty might not under a flat fee arrangement, but I'd bet most attorneys who counsel that lawyer would tell him to bill monthly anyway.   (And if I were doing flat fee with no monthly bill, that would be included in my retainer agreement.)

And as your friend discovered, giving an attorney more money when you aren't satisfied with their current performance is really bad.

Your friend should probably check to see if the attorney has been disciplined already.  And should consider filing a lawsuit for the amount over 10K, because if the attorney declares bankruptcy or doesn't have enough assets, having a judgment for the amount due will put her as a priority for collection.   Her state bar might also have a fund that helps compensate those who are cheated by an attorney.   (If she does this, she needs to keep it separate from the first flat fee transaction, that is disputed since if she talks about  both, a court might find that she has litigated or should have litigated that claim, with the claim for the second fees he/she thinks she has brought.)

The first thing she should do is review her contract, and either file the lawsuit, or prepare the paperwork to file the lawsuit (if your small claims limit is 10K, then small claims would make it easier) and send a copy to the attorney demanding the 10K you paid over the flat fee be returned, and a full accounting for the flat fee amount since s/he didn't do what the flat fee was supposed to cover.   (Whether you have a claim against the flat fee when there was no apparent work, is an issue you'd take up with the bar program that helps clients negotiate fee disputes.)

I'm sorry the news is not better.

Edited by rpn
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Thank you, everyone.  I sent her a link to this thread, by the way.  :)  She feels like she's hit a wall in her custody situation.  It just seems like whoever has the most money wins and of course she was the stay at home mom for a decade and any money she was awarded has mostly been used on legal fees and living expenses for the last two years.  Her lawyer just seems incompetent, doesn't read thoroughly, can't remember facts from last week (I've read these email exchanges and he's ridiculous) and they even accused her of not giving them necessary information.  So the paralegal writes her a snotty email about her withholding important details, so my friend forwards her the email she already sent last week that shows she did indeed give her the information and does she apologize to her?  Of course not.  They have threatened her ex with contempt and then they don't follow through.  Now they're insisting they do mediation instead, but it's really not a mediation issue.  So frustrating! 

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Mediation is usually recommended because it is quicker than going to court, and if the parties can agree, then it may be a better resolution than what a court would do.  

And today, equal parenting time is more and more the expectation.

ETA:  If the custody thing came up after the original divorce, it wouldn't have been included in the original flat fee.  Was it a trial on the divorce and property settlement the flat fee covered, or the custody too?

Edited by rpn
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It's a long, confusing story and I probably shouldn't go into detail here.  In short, there's parent alienation going on and she doesn't know what to do next. 

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Take the kids to a therapist with whom mother has shared her suspicions and given direction to help her kids deal with their current lives.   It is only if and when the therapist agrees that she can testify there is, that any custody modification may be sought.   And winning is harder still.    Best to simply be a good and honorable parent herself, so that the kids know that whatever is happening isn't because of mom.   It may hurt for a time, but kids have a way of knowing, and eventually coming around.  

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On ‎3‎/‎6‎/‎2016 at 8:34 PM, rpn said:

Take the kids to a therapist with whom mother has shared her suspicions and given direction to help her kids deal with their current lives.   It is only if and when the therapist agrees that she can testify there is, that any custody modification may be sought.   And winning is harder still.    Best to simply be a good and honorable parent herself, so that the kids know that whatever is happening isn't because of mom.   It may hurt for a time, but kids have a way of knowing, and eventually coming around.  

Thank you.  The main problem is that her ex has full custody at the moment and after a parent re-evaluation, she has a chance to get 50% custody.  She has supervised visits that were supposed to be lifted after 6 months, but she was supposed to have a re-evaluation that hasn't happened for various reasons.  Her visits have been mostly with her mom who is unsupportive and speaks negatively about her in front of the children.  Not a neutral person at all.  The decree says they can use the few named relatives or a third party that they both agree on.  She's telling him to pick any paid professional, but he refuses to.  She hired a professional twice and her ex made sure the kids put on an act/refuse to do the visits, claiming they were scared.  The professional documented that it's obvious they're being coached.  You would think her lawyer would file contempt, but he wants to drag this out in mediation because he says they have to do that first.  Makes no sense.  The dad is obviously terrified of having a professional witness the behavior.  She was referred to a therapeutic supervisor and her ex's initial reaction was, "What is your connection to this person?!" as if she has a special close friend who is a therapeutic supervisor. 

Anyway, she went to a lawyer who does malpractice and he said she should try to get some money back from her lawyer, but her lawyer says it will take 45 days to get an accounting of everything.  So bizarre.  I read the email exchange and I just can't even believe that he's saying he needs to take the time to add up two years of emails, phone calls, motions, etc.  Um, should have been doing that all along!  Of course, he will say her money is all used up. 

She might file contempt on her own since her lawyer won't do it.  She desperately wants to see her kids.  What really gets me - she was being flexible for her ex.  He asked if they could change the supervision time that day because they were watching the play-offs.  She agreed and then he sits down with the supervisor and says he supports the kids never seeing their mom again.  Amazing! 

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