One of the bad ideas that lawyers suffer with is that clients do not want to pay their legal fees. The bad idea is reinforced by a large number of potential clients who act as if they are somehow entitled to the lawyer’s skills, experience and accomplishments without an exchange of fair value. Lawyers appreciate the potential clients who expect to pay fairly for the legal services the client is asking for. This is not a statement that fees are not negotiable, but fair fees are necessary.

The attorney-client relationship is a fiduciary relationship, which requires the lawyer to place the client’s interests paramount once the attorney-client relationship is established. That is a requirement of the Rules of Professional Conduct that apply to the lawyer. So the terms of the fee arrangement need to be established prior to the creation of the attorney-client relationship, while the person seeking legal assistance is a potential client. In order to do this, the lawyer needs to have a fair amount of information from the potential client before accepting the engagement. The information is needed to determine the scope of the engagement offering. The scope of the engagement has a great amount to do with the establishment of the legal fees expected to perform those tasks.

So why is this titled “the Importance of Legal Fees to the Client?” The fees a client pays engages the lawyer. As in most relationships, quality costs more than average, and quality legal relationships cost more than average legal relationships. While it is not a universal rule (there are lots of instances of clients paying top fees for poor quality services, or modest fees for quality legal services – a future post), there is some correlation between lawyers who study their fields, attend or teach at continuing legal education seminars and the quality of their work. Getting a fair dollar’s worth for the fees spent for legal services is important to our clients.

How does a client determine the fees are fair. The best way is to establish those fees up front. Clients often understand intuitively the likely fees for the complexity of the services they need. They may have a longstanding relationship with the lawyer or her firm. Just as a client know if they are in the market for a used car or a luxury sedan, they can choose to spend the amount needed for the services they are requiring. Potential clients know that an estate plan for a successful business owner will cost several thousand dollars, while the estate plan for a shift worker at the owner’s business will likely be several hundred dollars.

They know that the legal issue they are concerned about is worth more than the issue that they are pulled into unwillingly. Sometimes a potential client needs to do some comparison shopping. Compare the skills of the lawyers who handle their matters, the client service they and the law firm staff provide, and the experiences of prior clients. On the list of comparisons , but down that list is the fee that is charged.

Up front fees can produce sticker shock, but with a cap, based on the scope of services. Hourly fees result in a measurement of unimportant elements for the client. It is the result most clients are interested in, a successful conclusion to the legal issue. A prompt conclusion is usually more valuable to the client than a protracted exposure to legal concerns. A fee agreed to between the lawyer and potential client, before starting the work aligns the lawyer’s interests with the client’s. Clarity, certainty and agreement are reached early, and the focus can move to the issue to be resolved. It leaves the client in the position to establish control over the legal issue, whether it is having important legal documents prepared or engaging in litigation.

Discuss this issue with your lawyer. It will be uncomfortable, but important to have this discussion. If your lawyer is afraid to have the discussion, ask why. If the lawyer is afraid to establish the boundaries of your relationship, how will the same lawyer establish the terms of your legal interests in the matter you have? Feel free to call a lawyer who is not afraid of you as the prospective client.