I Hate Being the Client. You Should Know Why. (Part 2)

You can and should read I Hate Being the Client. You Should Know Why (Part 1) to understand this follow up.

Miscommunication-CartoonJust when you think it is safe to go back in the water, round two of attorney/client miscommunication hits.  We, the plaintiffs, haven’t even filed our lawsuit yet and it is just one amazing miscommunication screw up after the other.  And before you say to yourself that you would never do this, these lawyers are awful, and this is not how your office is run, remember, these lawyers not only came highly recommended from others we trust who have used them successfully, but I have used one of the lawyers before very successfully and without a single complaint.

MORAL: A strong referral is great as an opportunity for you to gain a client predisposed to liking and trusting you.  However, it is not a free pass for you, the lawyer, to rest on your laurels and not prove you were worthy of the referral.

As of the last post, when I thought our first miscommunication was resolved, we have had another huge communication break down and one questionable practice.  To refresh your recollection, there are five plaintiffs.  We last left off at the conclusion of the initial client(s) meeting with the attorneys.

Now the saga continues. Post client/attorney meeting, the first retainer agreement was mailed but to only one plaintiff, our designated point person and it only required his signature.  In effect, it was simply a retainer agreement between him and the law firm. None of the other plaintiffs were mentioned.  I immediately pointed out to our point person that not only did this give him unilateral decision-making power, but it effectively made us not part of the lawsuit AND made him solely liable for all legal fees.  It took another round of conversations to get this resolved and after a month we received a retainer agreement listing all the plaintiffs. It also specifically states he does not have unilateral decision-making power for the group.  Why do I bring this up?  Because during the initial meeting all the plaintiffs designated a point person solely for ‘communications’ between the lawyers and the group  so the lawyers didn’t have to talk individually to five different plaintiffs.  But this is not what the lawyers heard nor did they seek to clarify. This seems to be an on-going issue.

Next.  Our initial group meeting was the end of February.  One week after signing the proper retainer agreement on June 5th and providing a retainer of $2,000, we receive a bill for $2,050.  The invoice indicated this was for research done the first week in March. Our initial reaction was this must be a clerical mistake because it was research unrelated to our case (in fact, it was on ‘all fours’ with a case they are doing for another firefighter), and was done one week after our initial meeting and months before a retainer was signed by all the parties.  In addition, the invoiced work and dollar amount was in direct conflict with a statement made by the female partner who said, ‘once we have a signed retainer we will do preliminary research for X amount of dollars and I’ll throw in my review of the research for free.’  X amount of dollars was considerably less than the bill and this bill indicated four hours of her time at her hourly rate of $400 plus an additional six hours of research by her associate.  It simply had to be wrong.

Needless to say, the first reaction of the plaintiffs was to question why we were being billed for research done before we even signed the retainer agreement. They also were familiar with the other firefighter’s lawsuit so this raised a few eyebrows. The second thought was why did we receive a bill that was in direct contravention of the conversation had with the attorneys?  But here was the kicker.  When our point person called the office and questioned if the $2,000 retainer was being used to satisfy the bill and we just owed an additional $50, he was told it wasn’t.  The original $2,000 received with the retainer was to be held in escrow, kind of like a security deposit, in the event we don’t pay our bills. We now needed to produce another $2050.  I’m sorry. I’ve never heard of taking a security deposit against potential non-payment.  Second, and most importantly, this requirement/practice is not stated anywhere in the retainer agreement and it never came up once during our discussion of fees.  But worse than this, when questioned about the rationale behind this suspect practice, the explanation included some nonsense that they had been stiffed by another ‘group’ and they didn’t want to be stiffed again.  This was for their protection.

At this juncture our point person is calling me and saying the other plaintiffs want out.  This is so confusing to all of them and he’s at a loss to understand what is going on.  These are not stupid people.  These are people who have not been communicated with properly and the lawyers are in their own world wondering why we don’t understand what they are doing and causing them such grief. The point person’s  frustration level is very high, he feels devalued as a client, even made to feel stupid and we haven’t even really gotten started with the attorney/client relationship.

Again, you may say you would never be in this situation, that your communications are clear and memorialized in your retainer agreements.  But I ask you to ponder this.

You may think you are crystal clear.  But are you?  You may believe your retainer agreements are easily understandable by lay people.  But are they?  Most clients believe the retainer agreement is an accurate reflection of your discussions. Do your retainer agreements accurately reflect your conversations with your clients?

So, what happened?  I had to personally contact the lawyer I have a relationship with and lay out point by point our concerns, the areas of miscommunication, this ‘security deposit’ which was never discussed and makes no sense and is unacceptable, the bill for the research which was done long before a retainer was signed and in direct contravention to what was discussed, and to let him know the other plaintiffs are completely frustrated with the way this is being handled and it’s going to fall apart if something isn’t done.  They agreed to go to this law office to work with HIM specifically, to communicate with HIM directly because he happens to also be a lawyer/firefighter and speaks their language. The plaintiffis simply do not feel comfortable dealing with the ‘office’ or the woman attorney.

How would you handle the next steps as the lawyer representing this group?





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3 comments on “I Hate Being the Client. You Should Know Why. (Part 2)

  • This is a good example of poor communication. The so-called ‘security deposit’ is not unusual – it’s more common name is an ‘evergreen’ retainer. In practice, if you pay your bill timely every month, you will get the full retainer back. If not, the retainer will be used to pay any outstanding balance, with the remainder returned to you, if any.

    My retainers clearly spell this out (bad move not to do that in a retainer), and I explain the process to clients. My retainers also have a floor, or minimum, below which all work will stop. This is to protect me from getting into no-win situations where I do $20K worth of work and don’t get paid. Does it suck if you’re the client? Maybe, but why should the client feel entitled to free legal services? Sure, at this point all is swell, and you INTEND to pay, but there is a gulf between intending to pay and actually paying.

    Clients also tend to vastly underestimate the cost of litigation. If they’re barking about $2,000 now, wait until a deposition is needed and an additional $8-10,000 is billed.

    The attorney needs to sit down with the client and seriously discuss costs and billings. He needs to revise the bill to zero (no, you can’t bill for the research unless you arranged for that with the client up front; otherwise, why are you doing work with no retainer in place?), and explain expectations going forward, INCLUDING how much it will cost – and then keep doing so, month after month.

    The clients need to understand how expensive litigation is, and determine if they are OK with large bills. If $2,000 is a problem now (and maybe its not, but that needs to be determined), then that does not bode well for the future.

    The lawyer has a communication issue that needs to be resolved NOW. Otherwise, headaches lie ahead.

  • Greg,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment and suggestion as to how the lawyer needs to follow up including bringing the balance to zero. As an attorney, I know what an evergreen retainer is but I’m not the plaintiff. They never explained this to the actual plaintiffs and they never put it in the retainer agreement. $2,000 isn’t an issue. It’s the awful communication which turns the proverbial mole hill into a mountain. It makes the clients hesitant to move forward, feel ‘stupid’ and question their choice of attorney. The attorneys have the right to create whatever financial arrangement works best to protect their resources (time). But it needs to be communicated immediately and then the clients can decide if they are comfortable proceeding. However, the lawyers cannot expect clients to go blindly into the the night without a full explanation and then act as if the clients are the problem. When the client ‘fires’ the lawyer and leaves a poor review on a popular ratings site, the lawyer believes it is because ‘they weren’t a good client anyway’ not understanding they, the lawyer, were the root of the problem. Then the lawyer gets angry, blames the client and freaks out about their good name being trashed by a ‘bad’ client and will never know how much business he or she lost as a result of their continued ignorance of their own bad practices. Yet they remain supremely confident in their legal skills and trust this will be okay because after all, ‘if I’m a good lawyer and do good work, the clients will come.’ (The fall back of many a lawyer who closes up shop for lack of clients.)

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