In my national survey of lawyers, lawyers speak about the kinds of unrealistic client expectations or misperceptions they have encountered when clients approach or consult with them. One such unrealistic client expectation or misperception falls into the category of “what lawyers should be paid, when, and if they should be paid at all for the services they provide.”
The lawyers’ general feeling is the prospect or client’s view of lawyers and their role has been distorted by Hollywood and 50 years of TV law heroes. Those clients that do not have contact with lawyers regularly, and/or their only contact with them is when the are in trouble, are likely to have more misperceptions about lawyers and what they do and can do for their fees. Many seem to assume that fees should be the same as, or similar to, what a TV client paid “Perry Mason” or to other TV lawyers, for example: that is, nothing. Law-oriented entertainment programs, which are often the resource for many clients’ beliefs about lawyers and the law, rarely or never discuss fees. From a practical standpoint, doing so would be a distraction to the viewer and take away from the focus, action, and flow of the story.
Clients often believe that the lowest quoted price (a low-ball estimate) is the way to go. They do not want to pay what are considered the average retainers or fees that are deemed appropriate within the profession. Consequently, they may be shocked because they are comparing lawyer fees to the cost of some non-specific-problem software or fill-in forms that can be purchased at the local office store. They also do not see why they should pay for something the lawyer “already knows” since that information is supposed to be something they should already know as part of their being a lawyer. After all, if the lawyer does not have to spend hours researching the caselaw about the problem and can just print off a form on their computer, why should the client have to pay for it.
There was an overriding feeling that lawyers’ fees should not be set. That is, they should be free in some cases and flexible in others. Specifically, the client seems to feel that fees should depend upon the client’s case, circumstances, and ability to pay. The lawyer should charge certain clients less according to some sliding scale because of the type of case it is or the client has a particular personal problem or does not have much money. However, even those who make a fair amount of money to cover the fees sometimes seem unable to understand why the lawyer should want a retainer and be paid “appropriate fees for their services.”
There is also the expectation that the lawyer will not bill for time spent researching the case, making phone calls, or writing letters on the client’s behalf. The idea of a lawyer billing for time spent waiting in court also seems out of the question. There are clients who may not want to pay a lawyer’s fees because the client is unhappy with their legally-binding outcomes, even if these outcomes are the result of a negotiation or compromise to which the client has agreed.
This lawyers’ survey also suggests that there are unrealistic client expectations and misperceptions about what lawyers do, can do, and should do as well as what the clients can expect to achieve as a result of hiring a lawyer. This will be discussed further in other articles.