Eight frugal tips for legal matters

I recently was asked some questions from readers about legal matters, especially when it comes to trying to deal with legal matters while living on a budget. As these things are a bit beyond my level of expertise, I turned to a friend, Andrew Flusche, a lawyer in Virginia who has done some excellent work for me in some of my online ventures. In addition to being a good lawyer, he’s a great guy, and someone I trust, and intelligent to boot.

I asked him for some frugal tips for people dealing with legal matters, and what follows are some of his suggestions and thoughts, in his words.

1. Do you need a lawyer?

Before you do anything, ask yourself this question: Is a lawyer necessary? The best way to save money on legal expenses might be to keep lawyers out of the equation. This definitely isn’t right for every legal matter, but it could be right for yours.

If there is very little money at stake, hiring a lawyer may not be cost effective. You might be better off trying to resolve the matter yourself. Sometimes a polite phone call or letter can go a long way.

Even if the issue is significant, helping yourself might be an option. A variety of good do-it-yourself legal handbooks exist, such as those by Nolo Press. Your local library will probably have similar books ready to check out.

2. Go to small claims court.

Small claims court exists for a reason. It helps people have their day in court to resolve small disputes. The precise rules and requirements vary by jurisdiction, but it can be a cheap option to litigate a monetary claim.

You can generally pursue amounts up to a few thousand dollars in small claims court. The filing fees are usually a small amount. You typically do not hire a lawyer in these cases; you pursue the case on your own.

3. Buy unbundled services.

Perhaps you need a lawyer for part of a matter, but you can handle some things on your own. Unbundled legal services could be the frugal solution. This innovation breaks down legal services into discrete parts, letting clients purchase only what they need.

Under this model, you could hire an attorney to just give advice on a certain situation. Or you could hire someone to review contracts for you.

Unbundled services can be a win-win deal for clients and lawyers. The client gets exactly the needed services and only has to pay a minimum amount. And the lawyer can work on discrete matters for a variety of interesting clients.

4. Educate yourself.

Regardless of the legal option you choose, you need to educate yourself. Even if you hire an attorney for all your legal needs, you should make sure you understand what’s going on.

One simple thing you can learn is legal terminology. Your attorney should be able to speak to you in plain English, but there are still legal terms involved. If you take the time to find definitions for things, you save your attorney’s time in explaining them to you. In most arrangements, saving time for your attorney saves you money.

5. Provide all the details.

After you have decided to hire a lawyer, you have to communicate with him. To help your lawyer work as efficiently (and cheaply) as possibly, get all your details together. If you’re prepared to answer the lawyer’s questions, you can make the most of any meetings you have.

In today’s computer age, it’s easy to keep records and documents handy. You could just create a Google Doc of information about your case. When something happens or a memory resurfaces, make a note of it. You could share this Doc with your attorney through Google or just email it to him.

6. Group your questions.

If your attorney is billing by the hour, you want to minimize the time he has to spend on your matter. Most attorneys bill in six-minute increments, so even a quick phone call to your attorney will cost 1/10th of an hour (possibly $25).

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t contact your attorney. But you should be efficient in that contact.

Don’t call your attorney five times during the day. Make a list of things you’d like to talk about and call once. The same applies to email.

7. Ask for alternative billing.

Lawyers don’t have to bill by the hour all the time. In fact, many lawyers are using different billing methods precisely to lower the cost of legal services. If you want to lower your attorney’s fees, ask about alternate billing arrangements.

Contingency fees are a popular method of billing in cases like personal injuries. You pay your attorney a percentage of the amount you recover.

Attorneys use flat rate billing when the amount and nature of work is predictable. If you have a routine traffic court matter, a flat rate might make your cost easy to foresee. Flat rates can also help you get a simple will drafted and signed.

8. Stay focused on the goal.

A wise business attorney told me that the client is truly in trouble when they’re fighting “for the principle of the matter.” If you’re fighting for prinicples, your costs will likely skyrocket. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for your beliefs, but sometimes fighting in the legal arena can be a bad business decision.

The same rationale applies to people who want to harass people through the courts. An unscrupulous attorney might help you, but it will likely be expensive. Do you think an attorney who will simply harass your adversary will turn around and bill you fairly?

Always keep your focus on the end goal, and make sure your attorney knows that goal as well. Ask yourself how certain decisions might affect reaching that goal. If you get off course, talk it over with your attorney and get back on track. You’ll save money in the end.

Andrew Flusche runs his own private law practice in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He helps with Virginia legal matters, including trademarks, copyrights, litigation, and probate.

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