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I Think My Attorney is Screwing Me, Part 2

Dear Readers:

As you know because you never miss a day of my blog, yesterday I addressed a letter from a man named Spencer who is concerned he is being over-billed by his divorce lawyer.

I decided to give him a little lecture and illustrate for everyone exactly what’s going on in yesterday’s blog and today give him specific advice on what to do. This process is called “bifurcation,” also known as “making hay when the sun shines by transforming one letter into two days of content.”

Here’s a link in case you were trapped under something heavy and missed it, or if like me your memory ain’t what it used to be:

I Think My Attorney is Screwing Me!

I received a couple emails yesterday expressing concern I was too hard on Spencer, so let me explain why:

Those who are divorcing need to wake the hell up and take control.

I cannot tell you how many fine people have written to me with the same problem and all of them answer in the affirmative when I ask this simple question:

You didn’t read your fee agreement, did you?

I’ve heard horror stories from people who range in education from a high school diploma to an MBA from Wharton.

I’ve given advice on this subject to waitresses and CEOs.

Unbelievably, I’ve had many lawyers, those you would think know a thing or two about reading contracts, write to me in despair after being billed into financial peril by their “advocate.”

Personal responsibility is my thing, and that means taking control of your choices as well as owning up to them.  It may be too late for Spencer to read and negotiate his fee agreement, but today I tell him how to wrest the reigns of his divorce horse back from his shitty shady lawyer Brad.

Dear Spencer:

Before I give you my advice, please read my disclaimer:

DISCLAIMER AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY

I am not a doctor or a licensed therapist and I am not providing medical information or guidance, so don’t even think about suing me for malpractice if your life turns to shit after following my advice. I can’t get insurance for this blog, so if you are looking for deep pockets, you will have to buy some cargo pants.

Yes, I am a lawyer, but I am not YOUR lawyer. Any mention of the legal system and how I would approach your problem were I standing in your shoes (and they better be nice shoes, because I really like shoes) is not legal advice, it is simply advice.

While I relish the idea of having a confidante/advisor relationship with anyone who seeks a pithy and irreverent take on his or her issue, I am not interested in an attorney-client relationship with anyone.

Been there, done that. It’s not you; it’s me.

You, Reader, hereby absolve me of any liability for your use of this blog. If you do try to sue me, not only will I come after you in perpetuity for my legal fees and costs associated with my defense, I will also unfriend you on Facebook. 

Got it?  

(Those of you with limited time today can skip to the end.  Those of you contemplating or going through a divorce: take notes.)

What Your Lawyer Won’t Tell You: Tricks of the Trade by Numbers

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1. Problem: Vague Billing Descriptions

What does the following billing identification describe to you?

“Review and request discovery.”

Lawyers are notorious for using language devoid of specifics to justify time they (allegedly) spent on your file.  This allows them to bill you an arbitrary amount for tasks they don’t have to justify because they aren’t specified.

Any professional providing a service should be able to note with specificity exactly what work was done when they are billing you.

Do you think your medical insurance company would pay your doctor’s $5,000 bill if their time spent with you was described as “provide medical care to patient?”

They most certainly wouldn’t, and you shouldn’t either.

Back to our example:

“Review and request discovery” is a very common time description which can generate massive fees with little to no understanding on the client’s part for what that description actually entails.

“Bend Over and Take It Brad” would (and has, because I saw the bills) charge you numerous hours with that simple description, “review and request discovery.”

An honest attorney would bill their time like this:

“Review client’s husband’s 400 pages of discovery including bank statements, mortgage information, pay stubs and investment accounts.  Draft letter to opposing counsel regarding remaining outstanding discovery: titles to automobiles, boats, and sexual aids plus claimed value of stamp collection.  

“Retain expert philatelist to value stamps after googling ‘philatelist.’”

Solution:

To prevent this problem, have your old fee agreement nullified and a new one drafted.  In it include language requiring detailed bills with enough information for you to ascertain what was done and how much time was spent on each task.

Review your bills carefully.  If Brad isn’t describing exactly what he is doing with your case from now on, get rid of him and find someone who will.

2. Problem: Multiple Lawyers on Your Case

I noticed when I looked at your bills there are eight lawyers charging time on your file, some of whom do not even practice in your city but rather at one of the tiny satellite firms (or what I like to call “Hydra Heads”) around your state.

That’s not OK.

Multiple attorneys billing on the same case is one of the most common complaints I get.

Newsflash:

Your divorce, like the vast majority of divorces, is not complicated.  You are not breaking new legal ground and are not worthy of a team of attorneys and experts fussing over you.

How many lawyers does it take to sit in a meeting with you to discuss discovery?

One.

How many lawyers does it take to have a conference call with opposing counsel?

One.

How many lawyers should attend your mediation with you?

One.

How many lawyers does it take to conduct a hearing in a standard divorce case?

One.

Solution:

To prevent multiple attorney billing, include in your new fee agreement language prohibiting this practice without your prior approval.  Review your bills carefully to ensure Brad is following your edict.

3. Problem: Minimum Billing Requirements for Time or Activities, Outrageous Interest Rates, and Ridiculous Late Fees

You blindly signed the fee agreement allowing for this bullshit, so now what do you do?

Solution:

As stated above, you throw that piece of shit in the trash where it belongs and write a new one.

Include in that new document specific language that minimums in excess of the legal standard .1 (6 minutes) will not be charged and that all time billed will be actual time worked.  

As always, review your bill to make sure Brad is behaving himself.

Keep your own time records and compare them to Brad’s bill.  If you know you had a call on January 3rd to discuss an upcoming hearing and it took 5 minutes, keep an eye out anything higher than a .1 for that same call.

Have the interest rate changed to something reasonable.  I spoke with a few managing partners on this issue and most agreed that your state “legal rate of interest” is the standard.  In Oregon, that’s 9%.

As for the language waiving objections to fees and those insane late charges, in which your attorney and his firm purport payment in full is due five days after mailing?

Hold on.

Ouch.

I was shaking my head so hard I injured myself.  Is there a chiropractor in the house?

I’ve honestly never heard of such terms.  

My mind is so boggled that it’s possible I shan’t recover, but I will try to go on. Eliminate all that crap and substitute language providing that late fees on undisputed charges are generated only after 45 days of receipt.

4. Problem: Excessive and Questionable Work and Extensive and Numerous Motions and Discovery Requests.

You admit you haven’t been paying attention and are not sure why all this work is going on.

You and your wife have largely agreed on custody and since she is also a very successful businessperson, alimony is not on the table.

What the hell are these lawyers fighting over?

Solution: 

Spencer, get your shit together.   Talk to your wife.

Even though your original letter told me this divorce was to be “amicable,” you admit you are not speaking to her these days because you are upset she’s dating someone.

Routing all communications through lawyers is not “amicable.”  It is indicative of a disaster.

For fuck’s sake, Spencer: you were married for close to 18 years and had children together.

Stop acting like a child because you are pissed she has been playing rubber ducky in another man’s tub.  You need to learn how to communicate with each other so as to prevent a financial catastrophe and most important, to be outstanding co-parents to your children.

Your behavior is selfish and counterproductive.

  • Grow up.  
  • Get therapy.  
  • Open up the lines of communication with your wife.
  • Come to agreement on whatever is holding things up and tell your lawyers to settle this piece of shit divorce.
  • Get laid.

Your wife needs to read this advice as well (except the last bullet point because she’s got that one covered).

She has been also been busy at work and with the kids, while expending some amount of precious time having her Love Canal widened by the new Mr. Wonderful.

In other words: she too has largely been ignoring this case.

This is WAY too long and I could go on for quite some time.   Therefore, here is my condensed version of advice to you:

AskDesCamp Advice: Fresh Squeezed AND Concentrated!

  1. Insist on a new fee agreement.
  2. If he agrees to our terms, review each bill very carefully to ensure compliance.
  3. Talk to your wife and resolve whatever outstanding issues you have, then instruct Brad to wrap it up.
  4. Bend Over and Take It Brad will almost certainly tell you he won’t agree to a new fee agreement with the language I mentioned because then it would be fair, reasonable, and not likely to help him raise the money for a gold-plated set of golf clubs to use at his second-rate country club.
  5. In that case, go back to step #3, fire Brad, and retain a new attorney who will draft a reasonable fee agreement and help you and your wife wrap up your case.

I would have said that in the beginning but then I’d only have a few words to show for myself today. 

Please report back after you have pulled your adorable little head out of your rear and taken control of your life.

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