When you go to a store to buy a lovely new TV set, you see the ticketed price and you know that this is what you have to pay for the item, unless you negotiate a lower price. You pay the agreed price, get the item and get the invoice. That's all. When you go and consult a medical specialist such as a neurologist, brain surgeon or any other professional person, you arrange the appointment, often providing details of your problem and then have a consultation. You are billed for that consultation and are issued an invoice. That's all.
This sort of transaction applies to virtually every business and profession - except one - the legal profession. Many people have found out to their dismay and anger that even a simple thing as a consultation with a lawyer is fraught with danger, mostly of the financial kind. Here is a true life example of one such experience. Names and certain information that could identify anybody have been removed. You should study this carefully and learn from it.
A very close friend was trying to recover money that was conned from him in a Ponzi scam by his solicitor from the NSW Law Society, the body that insures lawyers who default, defraud or steal trust money. As I had been helping him with all the paperwork, I decided to consult a lawyer to see what chance my friend had of recovering these funds. It all sounded very simple, just a face-to-face consultation with a lawyer.
I sent this lawyer an email asking for a consultation and I gave a brief description of the problem for background, otherwise I would have to spend a considerable time during the meeting explaining the situation. So giving the lawyer a heads-up on the problem was the right thing to do.
I duly went to the meeting with the lawyer and the meeting started off 15 minutes late and lasted 45 minutes. The lawyer stated that he had made a phone call or two and had briefly examined the situation, but did not know enough about the particular legislation that governed the situation. He suggested that I consult with a junior barrister, with him being there to instruct the barrister. He estimated that the cost for this would be around $2000 to $4000 for the barrister and $2000 to $4000 for him.
In other words, what I expected to get from this face-to-face consultation with the lawyer did not actually provide me with a legal opinion at all, even when the lawyer had apparently briefly studied the ramifications of the matter. All I got was the advice that I should spend between $4000 and $8000 to get nothing more than a considered legal opinion of whether I actually had a viable case to take to court, nothing else.
Apart from a couple of snippets of information, the consultation with this lawyer was rather fruitless, although nobody would expect a lawyer to know absolutely everything about every legal case and precedent. Nevertheless, I left the consultation feeling rather disappointed. After some deep discussions, I decided that throwing up to $8000 just to get a legal opinion about the chances of being successful in a civil court case just was not worth the risk, so I sent an email to the lawyer telling him that I had decided not to pursue the matter and for him to send he his bill for the consultation. That's when I got the shock of my life.
The lawyer's itemised account duly arrived and when I opened the envelope and saw the amount he had charged me, I could hardly believe it - over $1400 for what was supposed to be a brief consultation. I was enraged to the point of apoplexy. Back in 2005, this lawyer who was really nothing more than an ordinary solicitor with a Bachelor of Law degree and who had spent four years at university before hanging out his shingle, charged $450 plus GST per hour for a consultation, which was outrageous when compared to a consultation with an eminent surgeon, who may have a string of degrees and postgraduate diplomas in his speciality and who has spent 6 to 8 years at university plus a number of years as an intern and who might have charged around $250 for the same time.
But it made me realise that the legal profession does not operate like any other business and it is important to me to describe the account items here and give my explanation of them. Lawyers charge in units, a unit being one minute. The sums quoted here are ex-GST, which is added at the total.
To say that I was outraged when I received this account would be understating my feelings to a massive degree. I was apoplectic to think that what was supposed to be nothing more than a brief meeting with a solicitor could cost me over $1400. Not only that, the meeting didn't achieve anything and didn't take me any further in the matter.
What was galling was that this lawyer took it upon himself to allegedly research the matter and make telephone calls before the meeting and bill me for this, when he was not instructed to do so. Furthermore at the meeting, he was firmly instructed not to do anything until he heard from me, however he sent an email and a letter attached to an email and billed me for that too. I thought that this was completely uncalled for.
After I had calmed down from my rage at this preposterous account, I wrote a firm letter to this lawyer complaining about the enormity of the account, considering that I felt that I should have been charged for the meeting only, not every little item such as unnecessary emails to me, plus the ultimate insult, charging me for the bill. The lawyer obviously realised that I would most probably drag him before a tribunal under the Legal Professions Act to have him try and justify this amazing account, so he very generously told me that I could pay whatever I thought his services were worth.
I was actually tempted to send him $250, which would have been commensurate with the fee charged by a specialist surgeon for a consultation, but I eventually sent him half the amount that he had billed and considered his services terminated. I made sure to never think of consulting him ever again.
A comparison of hourly fees in 2011 charged by various professionals with at least university degree qualifications gives one an insight as to why lawyers are charging far too much for what they offer.
This experience and example should serve as a warning to everybody. Before you go to a lawyer, consider the following:
Sometimes you can't get away from requiring the services of lawyers. But at the end of the day, if you can get a lawyer who is reasonable and who is not going to rip you off, consider yourself lucky. Just remember that lawyers do not operate like every other profession or business. They will try and bill you for literally everything they can think of, even sending a one-line email could cost you $40 if you allow them to charge you like this. So use the above true-life example as a warning and a guide and avoid a very costly experience.
Just to let you know what happened, I started legal proceedings on behalf of my friend against the NSW Law Society and I recovered a whopping $300,000 for him. This money was vitally important, as it was part of his nest egg for his retirement. I probably wouldn't have done any better if I had used a lawyer, because that was the maximum amount that was due to my friend. But if I had used that lawyer and his barrister mate, I reckon that half or more of that recovered money would have been eaten up in legal fees.
The moral of this story and the above information is that wherever possible, you should deal with legal matters yourself. There's an old joke that sums up my feelings about lawyers that goes like this: What's the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? The answer: One is an ugly bottom-feeding scum-sucking predator - and the other is just a fish.