by Richard J. Coffee, Cordell & Cordell, P.C.
Of all the issues attendant to your domestic litigation matter, understanding the legal fees and costs incurred on your behalf should be the least confusing aspect. Lengthy litigation costs are usually foreign to many domestic litigation participants.
You may have hired a lawyer to prepare a will or handle a traffic ticket, which are usually flat fee arrangements. You may have had a personal injury case, which are usually contingent or percentage fee cases. In these types of legal representations you probably received only a single statement at the end of the case and had no reason to review the time entries of your attorney, since you were not charged by the hour.
Domestic litigation, like business litigation, involves substantial activity such as discovery, depositions, negotiations, and trial preparation, in addition to the actual trial. As domestic litigation usually does not have a specific dollar goal, like a personal injury case, it is generally not possible, nor appropriate, for a lawyer to charge a contingent fee in a domestic litigation case. Most domestic litigation attorneys charge by the amount of time incurred, not a flat fee, as it is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate how long, and therefore how much, a domestic litigation case will take. In a presumed uncontested or agreed cases, a flat fee may be offered. However, often such cases can become contested and the flat fee agreement often will provide for conversion to an hourly rate when the presumed agreement falls through.
You should be provided a retainer agreement at the start of representation which sets out the billing terms. Time is what the attorney has to “sell” and when the attorney is traveling to court or waiting for the docket call, the retainer agreement often will provide that the client will be charged for that dedicated time as the attorney will not be able to work on other client matters.
Other charges, such as court fees, witness fees, document copying, legal research services, and other expenses may also be detailed. Different firm employees may have different billing rates. Firms also have different minimum billing increments, usually in tenth (6 minute) or quarter (15 minute) hour increments, such that each phone call or email will incur a minimum charge.
Your attorney should provide you periodic statements as to what work was done, which member of the firm performed the work, and what was charged. Statements once a month or every two weeks will allow you to monitor the cost of your case to make decisions as you go as to what issues you wish to pursue and at what cost. If you have paid a security retainer to assure payment of your fees, the periodic statement should also show the status of that account and whether payment is required to maintain or replenish the account.
While the rules of professional conduct are specific to each state, in general attorneys do not bill clients for the time spent to review billing statements. You should review your statements when received and discuss the statement with your attorney or the firm billing department should you have any questions regarding the statement.
Richard Coffee is a Senior Attorney in the Belleville Illinois office of Cordell & Cordell.