Daniel Harris

Article Summary:

How to control your legal fees and get better service.

Save on Legal Fees: Nine Keys to Controlling Costs (Part 1)

Attorneys are all about money, right?

We're the ones who cue our families for photographs with, "Everybody smile and say, "Fees!'" Go ahead. Insert your own joke here. We can take it. But despite the jokes and our reputation, most of us are businessmen, too. We understand the need to control costs. We don't like wasting anyone's time, either.

We're just like you. We thrive on referrals and return business. If we gouge clients, a lot of people hear about it.

So I'm here, as an attorney, to tell you how to keep your legal costs under control. I've enjoyed twenty years in my career with firms ranging in size from more than 500 lawyers to firms with less than five attorneys. It's this simple: When companies follow these nine keys for hiring and using legal counsel, they crunch their legal costs, and actually increase the quality of their legal representation.

Key #1. Get the right lawyer for the job
Get the lawyer whose practice focuses on the narrow area of law in which you need assistance. (This almost always means you need more than one law firm doing your legal work, by the way.)

Choosing the right lawyer can save you big money in the long run. The focus of my practice is international dispute resolution. Many times, the best way to collect a debt owed by a foreign company (particularly if that company is based in an emerging market country) is to seize an asset of that company in a foreign country. Suing these companies in the United States is very expensive. Many countries do not fully recognize U.S. judgments. You sue here and take the judgment there, only to learn you essentially need to sue again and win in your debtor company's home country. Seizing your debtor's valuable asset in a neutral third country can oftentimes be the best solution.

The problem is that many, if not most, of the contracts my clients or their attorneys ask me to collect on outside of the United States weren't written with that in mind. Why not? Because they weren't written by an international lawyer. In these cases, I'm only brought in as the specialist to do damage control long after the agreement is executed. Many of these contracts state very explicitly that the client's home city is the only jurisdiction in which any lawsuit might be brought. So what happens? Such a provision can preclude action in some foreign countries and make seizure in all of them more problematic.

I had a recent case where I am certain we could have collected a million dollars for the client in an overseas jurisdiction had there not been a provision requiring litigation in an East Coast state. My East Coast client may have saved a few hundred dollars by having his regular lawyer draft the contract, but in the end, it may have cost them a million dollars.

Choosing the specialist usually saves money in the short term as well. My next door neighbor asked me to be her lawyer in purchasing a house from her parents. (A reminder: I do international dispute resolution.) I made clear I had absolutely no real estate background and that this transfer would be far more complicated than she probably realized.

My neighbor needed an attorney with experience in these deals. I knew such a deal should be structured to legally minimize various taxes and I told her that if she used someone without experience in this specific area - like me - she increased the likelihood of missing out on some tax benefit. Still, the clincher was when I told her that it would take someone like me around 30 hours to do such a project, while someone who was familiar with the legal territory would probably get it done in half the time.

I recommended a top-flight real estate lawyer with a tax background and told my neighbor she should expect legal fees of at least $3,500. She mentioned that the lawyer I'd recommended had completed the job, tax benefits intact, for much less.

I was shocked by the low fees and called the real estate lawyer for an explanation (I actually thought he had cut my neighbor a break as a favor to me). The lawyer told me it had taken him only three hours for the job because he does about twenty of these transactions a year. That means there is no need for him to research the tax laws each time so what would take me 30 hours takes him three.

This illustrates an old adage about the best way to find the best lawyer for your particular matter: solicit suggestions from your regular lawyer, or a friend who is an attorney. However, you need to ask for more than, for example, someone who has ever done a trademark registration. In that case, you'll probably be passed off to another lawyer in his firm that has handled a few trademarks rather than getting the name of a well-respected trademark lawyer outside the firm. Using the in-firm corporate generalist for your trademark work will prove mighty expensive if that generalist misses something in the registration.

Key #2: Stay in constant communication with your lawyer
It may seem completely counter-intuitive that constantly communicating with your lawyer will save you money, but it almost surely will.

In reality, staying in good communication with your lawyer is the rough equivalent of regularly changing the oil in your car. It costs money each time, but a blown engine or (in the case of legal services) a big lawsuit is going to cost you a lot more in the long run than a few oil changes or phone calls along the way.

This brings me right to the next key:

Key #3: Know your goals and tell your lawyer [WHAT THEY ARE]
This is an "ouch" item. Remember the old Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want"? With your counsel, "You Won't Ever Get What You Want" if you don't know what you want to achieve through legal representation.

It's your lawyer's job to explain various possible outcomes of a case or transaction, but it's your job to know what your goals are. You are always going to know your business better than your lawyer.

Many years ago, a client came to me about six months into some highly contentious litigation with his business partner. The client had already spent around $50,000 on this case he had brought, but he had a vague sense of uneasiness about it. His regular corporate counsel had referred him to me for a second opinion regarding the litigation.

I met with the client for a few hours and learned that he wanted me to make sure his lawyers were handling the case properly. During this conversation, the client must have told me at least ten times that he never wanted to do business with his partner again. I told him I would review the entire case file and get back to him in a few days.

When we met again a few days later, I told him that his lawyers had been doing a fine job. Again, he kept mentioning how he never wanted to do business with his partner again.

I then asked him whether he realized that no matter what happened in his lawsuit against his business partner, they would still be partners at the end. Here's the "ouch": it turns out the client had thought that victory in his lawsuit would remove his partner from the partnership. The client had fifty grand into this process, and that goal of dissolving the partnership just wasn't going to happen.

I then spoke with litigation counsel who confirmed the lawsuit could never achieve that objective. The lawsuit was just to seek compensation from the partner for business he had allegedly diverted to another of his companies that should have gone to the partnership. We met a few times with his partner (who actually wanted out of the partnership). Within a few weeks, we achieved a settlement that removed the partner from my client's business - and ended the litigation that should never have been started in the first place.

Go to Part 2 ->

This information should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual legal advice.

Daniel Harris is an attorney at Harris & Moure, pllc., where he represents small and mid-sized companies in their international legal matters in or involving Asia, Eastern Europe, and North America. His areas of practice include: International law, International Litigation, Domestic Litigation, International Maritime Law, Domestic Maritime Law, International Vessel Arrests, and Yacht litigation. He is a member of the Alaska, Illinois, Washington, and American Bar Associations. For more information, visit www.harrismoure.com.

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