Perp Walks, Federal Guidelines, and the Constitution
Calling Some, But Not All, Lawyers

Why It Is Important To Charge Fees

I am not a personal injury lawyer, so I have never been in the business of sheer speculation over the suffering of another. Contingency fees are the norm among the "PI" crowd. I litigate criminal cases and plaintiff's federal civil rights cases. From time to time, and increasingly, I defend civilly. Here is something I have learned that may be of value: Be sure to charge adequate, even high, fees.

I see eyes rolling. Let me explain.

Filing an appearance or a lawsuit on behalf of a client is an act carrying consequences. Call it something akin to a marriage vow. You can only be let out of a case with permission of the Court. Have you a retainer agreement that will protect you from a client with infinite and irrational needs?

Persons accused of crimes or seeking access to the civil justice system are people in trouble, people in need. Sometimes the needs are simple and easy to meet. In some cases, lingering just beneath a benign smile there lurks a hollow and angry heart. The needs of this latter class of clients approach infinity. All lawyers blunder into the path of sociopaths and borderline personalities.

The Rules of Professional Conduct require that we keep our clients reasonably informed about the status of their case. But some clients can't help but obsess, and cannot avoid telling you how to do your job. Nothing requires us to give law-school tutorials to our clients, and we are no more required to explain each step we take than is a surgeon to justify each cut. These clients will call, cavil, quibble, and write one thing after another, taking time most lawyers don't have. How many lawyers have made the mistake of charging a flat fee only to hear the client want one impossible thing after another. Ever hear a client say "What have we got to lose," when all he is spending is your time?

Lawyers speak of client control. Wary litigators are aware that it is far easier to lead a client to the courthouse than it is to make them think. Fees, hourly fees, impose discipline on a client, and, if the client insists on wasting time, a lawyer is at least compensated for the time spent.

Failure to charge fees often yields the inevitable and most often frivolous grievances when a client feels neglected. That, too, takes time to defend. And then there is all the staff time spent copying documents, answering endless calls responding to questions that are not really questions, but are really just pleas for attention.

As lawyers we are all free to give our time away as often as we like. Indeed, it is our obligation to serve and to offer pro bono service. But we get to choose the person to whom we give.

My advice to young practitioners? Don't scramble so for cases that you fail to charge enough. I've spoken to more than one young lawyer in the past month who is at wits end over the impossible demands of impossible clients. Protect yourself and your firm by charging fees sufficient to permit you to get the job done, and fees high enough to let clients know that if they insist on wasting your time, they, and not you, will pay for it.