As a follow up to my post on professionalism based on my recent experience of being a lawyer’s client, I want to discuss billing expectations. As I told my family’s lawyer during an extremely unpleasant phone call, what he did to us was like taking one’s car to the repair shop, getting an estimate, then later receiving an invoice for 4 times what was estimated. My reaction to his bill was “whoa, wait a minute, that’s not what we discussed!” In fact, in the instance with the lawyer, he had not given us any indication that he was “going over budget.” That, to me, is the first glaring example of unprofessional billing. In my opinion, clients should be told what the price will be in advance. If there are any changes to the price due to changes in the scope of work, or finding something wrong under the hood, to continue the car repair analogy, then the client should be told immediately. The proper way to conduct business is to negotiate prices before the fact. When a client is surprised by a bill, there is likely an after the fact negotiation which will generally leave a sour taste for everyone. I have had clients attempt to negotiate Magnus’ bill after the fact, even when I have provided them with a proposal and engagement letter spelling out the fees and costs, and having them sign off on them, authorizing the work. But, as we have been more explicit about our terms over time, these events are rare. I don’t like being surprised by an invoice; I don’t know anyone who is. Paying what one agreed in advance should be the norm. Being asked to pay something which was not specified in advance is unpleasant. Similarly, being asked to negotiate after the fact, when the “deal” was laid out as clearly as possible, is not the way I conduct business. I do not think it is fair to us, or to our clients. Being clear about expectations is, to me, a sign of being professional.
Almost everyone wants to know the price of something before they purchase it. This is true regardless if someone is buying a hot dog, a car, or paying for legal services. Things can look fine, but if they are too expensive, in consideration for what they offer, there will be a disconnect between the product/service and the customer’s satisfaction with it. When it comes to purchasing legal services, or for that matter, jury consulting services, there is another factor that is sometimes unspoken. This factor is almost everyone’s recognition that whatever services are provided, they are going to be expensive. There are few lawyers, at least in my experience, who work “on the cheap.” Thus, because the customer/client knows they are making an expensive purchase, there is the expectation of getting everything that is being paid for and certainly, nothing less. Finding out, after the service has been provided, that it actually costs many times more than what one anticipated is a rude surprise and, in my opinion, borders on unethical conduct. As for professionalism, there’s no way that telling a client something is going to cost “$X,” then submitting a bill for “$X” multiplied by 2, 3, or in David’s recent experience, 4, is most certainly unprofessional. In fact, it is close to extortion in that, in order to finish the work, the exorbitant fee had to be paid, immediately. This is like the shady mechanic who partially repairs a car, then says, “Well, if you want to be able to drive it, it’s going to cost you 4 times more than what I told you. I fixed it, but you really shouldn’t drive it.” Professionalism and courtesy go hand in hand and it is crucial for the client/customer to know what to expect before agreeing to the scope of work to be performed.