By Camille Boyer, Calgary Legal Coach
Lawyers provide a valuable service to their clients, but legal services are not cheap. Legal bills can be challenging for many families to afford, particularly when engaged in ongoing and high-conflict family law litigation. Understanding how billing works and what goes into a lawyer’s fees and charges may not make the cost any more affordable, but perhaps easier to understand and appreciate.
Law Firm Billing
Law firms are businesses, just like any other business like a store or restaurant. However, instead of selling food or goods, law firms sell a professional service. Time spent working on a file by the lawyers in a firm is the sole way in which to generate income for the business. This means that time, for a law firm, is money.
One of the most effective and widely used methods to capture and quantify time spent working on a file is the ‘billable hour’. Most firms will bill in 6-minute increments, so 1 to 6 minutes is 0.1 of an hour, 7 to 12 minutes is 0.2 of an hour, and so on. Generally, anything a lawyer does on a file - whether it’s reviewing documents, drafting, phone calls or court appearances – will be billed in this way.
The reason the billable hour is so widely used, particularly in litigation, is because it’s too difficult to estimate how much time will go into each step of litigation, let alone the entire lawsuit. Family law litigation can range from just a few thousand dollars all the way to the six, and yes, even seven figures. Generally, the amount of time spent working on a file is not predictable nor within the control of an individual lawyer. Instead, some of the main factors that impact the amount of time and attention a file needs are the complexity, the urgency, the client’s needs, the opposing party or opposing lawyer’s conduct, and the level of conflict in the case.
There are only so many hours in the day and as a functional and efficient business, the billable hour generally makes the most sense in terms of matching the time and resources expended by a firm on providing legal services to clients. However, there are many uncontested matters that law firms are generally able to provide on a flat rate. This is because uncontested matters are generally much easier to predict in terms of the amount of time and resources the firm will dedicate to the matter.
Law Firm Business Expenses
Running a law firm requires significant overhead, expenses, and investment. Aside from the typical business expenses such as office space and supplies, marketing, utilities, bookkeeping and accounting, law firms also require expensive permits and licensing, stringent cybersecurity, advanced technology, specialized computer programs, and trust accounting services. Law firms can also struggle when clients have overdue or unpaid accounts, requiring expensive and time-consuming collection actions or worse, a bad debt.
The income generated by a law firm must also cover the salaries for administrative staff, legal assistants, paralegals and of course, the lawyers. Further, each individual lawyer will also generally incur tens of thousands of dollars in liability insurance, extended liability insurance, law society annual fees, professional memberships, and other expenses related to practicing law.
Lawyers are also required to participate in continuing legal education throughout their careers, which can include expensive courses and time out of the office (and therefore not billing) to stay up to date on the latest legal developments. In addition, lawyers have an ethical obligation to provide pro bono services and/or promote access to justice in their communities. Most lawyers take this ethical obligation very seriously and dedicate many hours and days each year providing legal services to marginalized groups or volunteering at community clinics.
The Cost of Becoming a Lawyer
Attending law school is an expensive endeavour. Most law school graduates are well into their late 20s or even early 30s by the time they finish law school. These are years out of a lawyer’s life where they are not earning income or, if they are, it is part-time and low-paid student work. Meanwhile, the lawyer has racked up significant student loan debt. The opportunity cost and the intensive training requirements for lawyers factors into the cost of providing legal services.
Further, the legal profession and specifically family law is notoriously stressful and leaves many lawyers prone to burnout or other mental health challenges. Dealing with high stakes matters will generally attract a higher salary because of the working conditions. This is like many other industries where workers are exposed to traumatic and emotional matters daily and are compensated accordingly.
Legal Skill and Competency
Just as a patient would not want a doctor to perform a surgery they are not skilled enough to do, family law clients want a hard-working, professional, and intelligent lawyer who will represent them confidently and competently advocate for their rights. The issues dealt with by lawyers are typically quite serious and of extreme importance to their clients and require the utmost care and attention. Further, lawyers cannot take short-cuts or perform below the standard of competence required by the profession, even if requested by a client to save costs.
What this means practically is that lawyers will give files the time and attention they need based on what is required, rather than what a client prefers or requests. Understandably, this can feel unpredictable and chaotic to a client, but this level of diligence is required by all lawyers, regardless of their practice area.
Options for Family Law Clients
The majority of family law litigants will self-represent in Court either at some stage or throughout their lawsuit. This is often because legal fees are not affordable for many Canadians or can become overwhelming and unmanageable in high-conflict litigation. However, there are alternatives to hiring a lawyer or being entirely on your own. There are many free or low-cost services provided by the Court, or by pro bono agencies. Further, this need for alternative legal services is why Coach My Case was started, to offer pay-as-you-go legal coaching and paralegal services for self-represented litigants. While a legal coaching client is self-represented, they can still access a lawyer’s expertise and experience, often for a fraction of the cost of full representation.
Further, legal coaching puts the client in complete control of the fees – if the lawyer isn’t asked to do work or spend time on a file, they don’t. Of course, having a full retainer with a lawyer is generally preferable but when the cost is too prohibitive, legal coaching may be the next best thing. Contact us to schedule your free 20-minute consultation to discuss whether legal coaching or full representation is a good fit for your family law matter.