Lawyer charges for email answer?

33 Replies

For people who use lawyers or are lawyers themselves, I'm just wondering if it's normal to be charged for simply responding to an email?

Usually these emails are simply one or two line responses or answers (that's all they really require), but it makes me question if an email that takes 5 seconds to type is worth the money I'm charged.

If this is normal, than I understand completely, I just want to see if that's the case. Part of me thinks you should only be charged for legal work or legal research, and these short brief emails should just be included in that, but I could be wrong.

Any responses are appreciated.

Caleb

@Caleb Heimsoth I'm not sure if it is normal across the board, however, my lawyer has indicated that part of my bill was due to lengthy email messages between us.  I'm not sure if she was charging me for every email, or just longer emails that took 5-10 minutes to craft.

I would think it completely depends on the nature of the email.  If I email my attorney a question that is going to require him to invest some time or effort to answer, I would definitely expect to pay.  If it something he should know off the top of his head, then maybe not.  Of course, if it's that easy of an answer I probably should have been able to find the answer on my own and should probably be charged my stupid/lazy tax for bothering him with it!

My dad's a lawyer and I believe this a pretty typical. They certainly shouldn't be charging more than 10 minutes (1/6 hour) for an e-mail, but law firms are all about "billable hours" so they must bill for any time they devote to clients.

I don't think it would hurt when in conversation with him next time to ask about it in a polite manner. Maybe that will make him less inclined to put 15 minutes for something that maybe took 5.

for anythinike an email they only bill for .1 of an hour, which is the lowest they go, but considering it's usually stuff he should simply know, this seems rather tedious, but If that's normal then that's fine 

In the professional services industry, our value is our brain. If you are tapping into my brain in any way shape or form, you better believe I'm going to charge you for it. 

I'm a CPA, so it's a bit different. I didn't like sending clients invoices for emails, so now we just include unlimited emails in the overall pricing package. But it's definitely a paid part of the service.

So yes, I'd say it's standard and fair. You're tapping into knowledge and you should be okay paying for that knowledge, regardless of how easy it is for the attorney to rattle off.

In my personal opinion, I believe it depends on how often you conduct business with them. Between evictions, creating my LLC, etc I have five lawyers. None of them have charged me for an email, call, or nickel & dimed me. I also have an accountant who's fees are north of $200/hr, but only bills me for his support staffs time, not his. They do this because I keep them busy. If I was a sporadic client, I'm sure the fees would be higher.

"A lawyer's time is his stock and trade."

An attorney who does not charge his clients for the time he spends working for them is giving away inventory for free. If I didn't include the time I spend drafting and crafting emails in my bills, I'd go broke. 

I'll usually talk to a new client on the phone or exchange emails about the legal issue for free... up to a point. Once the client hires me, he's paying for my time, no matter what I'm doing. 

It is for this exact reason that I have just instructed my closing agent not to include my attorney in any emails going back and forth during the close. I will determine what emails goes to my attorney and needs his feedback or review.  On the other hand, I have used lawyers for a transaction, with a flat fee.  That typically is a better way to go.

You should make sure that you are clear on what is billable and what is not, before you engage the attorney.

It depends, but he is well within his right to do so. When I billed clients sometimes I did and sometimes I did not, dependent upon a number of factors (e.g., length of time it took to respond, any technical research involved, nature of the client relationship, etc.).

I completely agree with @Christopher Smith .  When I bill my clients for email messages, it generally isn't for brief exchanges that can be similar to small conversations.  More than likely, the time billed for emails are due to any research involved and extended correspondence between the client and/or third parties.  However, for the most part, I don't find myself billing my clients for email correspondence.  It all depends on the relationship you have developed with your counsel and making your expectations, with respect to time, known at the beginning of the relationship.  

Part of the reason I asked is he emailed me yesterday, asking how things are going and if there's any more legal work I need done.

I'd love to be polite and respond but not if he's just gonna charge me for it, which he has so far for this type of correspondence.

Also I'd agree with most people here, it seems it depends. My CPA doesn't charge me for email correspondence, only for actual research, tax filings etc. So I'm sure it just varies by the individual.

This post relates closely to what I just went through while buying a small vacation home. For sale by owner, so we used a lawyer friend to make sure we were covered in our purchase agreement, etc. since the seller was the type that basically wanted to sell the house on little more than a handshake. I did all the legwork on paperwork to be used for closing. And what I contracted out to my lawyer I later realized I could've found or did find on my own. I also fixed spelling errors and typos in his legal drafts. So you can imagine my surprise when it was nearly all said and done to receive his bill in the mail showcasing all our email correspondence. Honestly, it never occurred to me that I would receive such an itemized bill or I wouldn't have been so loose and free in my emails to him. 

THEN, I got a 2nd bill because he had emailed after some time had passed since our last exchange regarding the Purchase Agreement offering to look at anything else I had before closing...to which he and I went back and forth on because, again, I'm loose and free with my email chatter. If I had known up front how our exchanges would be billed I might have drafted the PA myself and done some of the title groundwork myself (he was just a middle man on that - he and title company found same info I found and had access to). 

So far I've paid the first bill because he did perform the service that I had requested. And it was a lesson learned. But I can't bring myself to pay the smaller 2nd bill on the notion that I was led into the conversation that created the charges. I will probably end up paying it, or a portion of it, after speaking with him and his office about the nature of the bill and my reaction to it...and how this might affect our future business transactions.

I learned valuable lessons during the closing process of the cheap little house we bought. So my lessons weren't outrageously expensive but it was still cash that could've stayed in my pocket.

Next time I reach for a property I will approach some of the research, legal documents and legal services as a more seasoned pro. 

@Caleb Heimsoth ,

Yes, it's completely normal for a lawyer to charge for ANYTHING and EVERYTHING he/she can.   If they think about the case-- guess who is getting the bill?   You will also be charged if their secretary ever emails you, or if they respond to your email--- CHARGE, CHARGE, CHARGE!   It's ridiculous.. but check your contract, there is a probably a minimum you will be charged, likely  1/4- 1/2 their hourly rate per email.  Phone calls-- even if he calls you, or you call him, even if you don't talk about the case--- will be charged.. everything is $$$$$

There's a reason people hate lawyers!

@Caleb Heimsoth time is how they make money. Billing you for .1 hours is for 6 minutes of time, which is probably fair for answering an e-mail. I would recommend just limiting your questions to the essential or paying the money.

Having a good attorney seems expensive until you really need them. Then it seems cheap.

Originally posted by @Caleb Heimsoth :

Part of the reason I asked is he emailed me yesterday, asking how things are going and if there's any more legal work I need done.

I'd love to be polite and respond but not if he's just gonna charge me for it, which he has so far for this type of correspondence.

Also I'd agree with most people here, it seems it depends. My CPA doesn't charge me for email correspondence, only for actual research, tax filings etc. So I'm sure it just varies by the individual.

Ask him if his follow up e-mails are considered billable. If they are, make it clear that you will call him if you need something. Very often small exchanges like this are just lumped in with a larger billing. I would just level with him on your concern and if you don't like the response, find a new lawyer.

That's a reason to hate lawyers? Because they charge you for their time? How else would you like them to make a living? OF COURSE they charge to answer emails. It takes up a good 6 hrs of my day just sending emails. That's how we get deals done more efficiently and quickly in order to keep your bills DOWN. Why would anyone think they should be getting services for free? You think if you email your doctor to ask them a few questions about your symptoms they'll gladly email you all day? No. They'll tell you to come in and pay them or to see another doctor. How about asking your contractor to come by and just paint a wall or 2? Absolutely not. You are entitled to get paid for your time. Period. 

@Caleb Heimsoth , this was not directed at you at all. Just some ignorant people out there that really have no respect for how hard we work and just assume every lawyer pads their billing and does worthless work. Anyway, the answer is that yes, we bill for emails, but I don't bill a .1 for every email. Like others said, most lawyers will bill at the end of the day for all emails together, so no one gets over-billed for 1-liners.

That being said, residential closings should be flat billed anyway, so it shouldn't matter how many emails or calls you make or receive. $1200 for a closing should be $1200 no matter how long it really takes. 

Yes, because we sell our time.  The charge should be reasonable.  Even on flat-fee billing, which is most of my transactional drafting, if the client abuses the privilege of the fee structure with excessive emails, I will warn them that I will start charging for correspondence.  "Flat-fee" is not a free-for-all, but pre-packaged time.  If you start "just asking a question" without charge, next thing is we have 20+ people "just asking a question" without earning income for our time.

As an investor, how many times can I use your property for a few hours for free?

Originally posted by @Jessica Zolotorofe :
...

That being said, residential closings should be flat billed anyway, so it shouldn't matter how many emails or calls you make or receive. $1200 for a closing should be $1200 no matter how long it really takes. 

I disagree with this part.  Flat-billed is pre-packaged time.  Clients that abuse the privilege will get a warning then billed for excessive communications.

@Caleb Heimsoth

I'm a lawyer and I also hire several lawyers. So here are my thoughts on this issue. 

At the end of the day, you generally pay lawyers to "think." You don't pay them to get forms (you can get those on Legal Zoom or similar websites). And without looking at these specific emails you mentioned (and the amount that the lawyer billed you), it's hard to say if you got overbilled or not. The fact that he only gave you a one or two sentence response isn't always indicative of the amount of time he or she spent. 

Also, note that different lawyers have different styles of billing. Some lawyers send me a single bill without breaking it down. I'm fine with that as long as the ultimate bill is within what I consider reasonable. Some lawyers break everything down (I used to do this when I worked for a private firm). 

Having been on both sides, I would say most lawyers can do a much better job communicating their "value" to the client in their billings. At the same time, many clients do not know how to properly work with lawyers or (any other professional for that matter). In some ways, your job as a client is to efficiently communicate with your lawyer so that you are not "wasting" their time. When clients create "waste," the lawyer can either decide to eat that time as a service or they will start billing for it. Either way, many times everyone is unhappy. 

I agree with others that flat fees are generally better arrangements for "simpler" projects. But I've seen relationship sour on that end as well. 

Long story short, you should generally get comfortable paying for lawyers charging you for emails. But if the lawyer is constantly charging you 0.1 hours for each "how you doin?" emails, then that's arguably bad client management. ALTHOUGH it's hard to say that even there since some clients need constant reminders about what they need to do. Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to whether you trust your lawyer.

Disclaimer: While I’m an attorney licensed to practice in PA, I’m not your attorney. What I wrote above does not create an attorney/client relationship between us. I wrote the above for informational purposes. Do not rely on it as legal advice. Always consult with your attorney before you rely on the above information.

Originally posted by @Caleb Heimsoth :

Part of the reason I asked is he emailed me yesterday, asking how things are going and if there's any more legal work I need done.

I'd love to be polite and respond but not if he's just gonna charge me for it, which he has so far for this type of correspondence.

Also I'd agree with most people here, it seems it depends. My CPA doesn't charge me for email correspondence, only for actual research, tax filings etc. So I'm sure it just varies by the individual.

Caleb - it is a give and take. When I practiced law, I would not charge for those types of email. It is just customer service and marketing and relationship building. While your engagement letter is probably very open ended, it is up to the attorney to use reasonable discretion to bill you for what is appropriate. If it is a one or two line response, many attorneys will let it go because it is almost not worth the effort to bill you a .1 for it. If it requires a lot of thought then they will definitely bill for it.  You can also question and dispute any charges you do not feel are appropriate and most attorneys will back down. Attorney's are loathe to send bills to collections because it can sully their reputation so they are often willing to work out any dispute you may have over the bill. For most attorneys, it is about the long term relationship and they are willing to overlook a small fee dispute to keep a good relationship. 

I would write your attorney back and be polite. If he does not understand the difference of what is truly a billable email and non-billable I would dispute that charge and find yourself a new attorney because he probably is not looking out for your best interest long term. I am also a huge proponent of negotiating flat fee arrangements with attorney's I work with for transactional work. For transactional work, you should be able to find someone who will give you a flat fee.

@Jeff Greenberg Great advice about not including your attorney in the emails between you and the broker during the close. Thanks!

Updated over 3 years ago

In the sense that it's not sensible to include your lawyer into every single email convervation between you and the broker.

@Ingrid J. not just between the broker, but also title, or lender.  Unless you are paying a flat fee, I would be a filter for all emails and only let the lawyer get emails that they needed to see.  I don't need them to be cc'd on every mail.  I learned that the hard way.

It's normal... when you hired them you likely signed something agreeing to some type of incremental billing. That's why some attornies will spend more time on a simple topic, or look at other issues for you, because their firm will bill you for 30 minutes if you use it all or not.

If that gets your goat, one of the law firms I use is rated as #3 in the state, they have an attorney for anything you can think up, and they love to pull in experts... A simple question can turn into 3 attornies reading a email and billing you.

There has only been one billing made me pickup the phone and rip a attorney a new one. It was when I dropped by a office just to say high to an attorney we've done a lot of work with, after 10 years I had got to know them personally. We talked about their life, vacation, their recent wedding. Right before the end of the 2hr chat, the attorney asked me how business had been doing, I rambled off the standard ups and downs of landlord bs, and they tossed out some lame legal advice that had zero value to me. It was like your parents telling you to save for retirment after you just finished telling them how you spent all your money type of advice... guess what, I got a legal bill the following month. Never used that firm again!

My suggestion is to keep a running list of questions you have for your attorney, and then email that list of questions at one time. It'll make his time responding (hopefully) more efficient than charging for each individual response he would have sent. Do the same thing with phone calls. 

I've had clients flabbergasted that their bills were so high, yet they called and complained over the smallest non-legal things that they could have taken care of themselves. Attorneys trade in time, so we charge for the time that you use. There are arguably better ways to price legal services, but that's where we are as an industry.