Previously: We hear rousing applause from the public at the news that lawyers are finally being called to task over their astronomical bills. The fundamental Right to Justice afforded to all, courtesy of our Constitution, means that the legal profession is constitutionally bound to temper fees. But let us put this into perspective, lest we find law offices around the country facing a stampede of potential clients expecting discounted rates. Even when tempered, legal fees are still high. But if you play your cards right, they can often be avoided altogether.
How to avoid or limit lawyers’ fees
1. Get it in writing
Entering a new Business venture with a business colleague? Selling your car to your sister? Buying or selling something? Leasing property? Partnering with a friend? Moving in with your other half? Whoever you happen to be dealing with, know this: it’s always better if you’ve committed the details in writing. Even if it’s family. Especially if it’s family. And particularly if there’s a monetary value involved.
2. Be insured
Life happens. And try as we might, often we can’t control it. But the right insurance policies can help when it comes to cleaning up the aftermath. Of course, navigating the minefield of policies can be rather daunting, so getting a knowledgeable, reliable insurance broker on your side can help (do some background checks first!) Read your insurance policy wording, ask questions. And get any clarification, promises, representations in writing.
3. Stay Calm
Highly-charged emotions are a lawyer’s best friend. When faced with a potential dispute, check your emotions before charging into your lawyer’s office. Remember that if or when your dispute is heard in court, the presiding officer is legally required to remain objective, impartial, and consider both sides – because every dispute does has two sides to it. Try putting yourself in the judge’s chair and objectively consider your best-friend-turned-worst-enemy’s point of view. Hard as it may be, stay cool, calm and collected. You may surprise yourself. When instructing your attorney, make sure you’ve considered all the alternatives because some things, when put in motion, are difficult to stop. When you hand that summons over to the sheriff you need to make sure that it’s your head doing the talking, not your heart.
Where possible, nip the problem in the bud. Negotiate, compromise, settle. Rigidity is a recipe for high legal fees. The fees you save by letting your soon-to-be-ex keep the flat-screen TV could pay for a new flat-screen TV, and some. This is not to say you should be a door-mat, or put up with injustice. There is nothing wrong with sticking to your guns and standing up for your rights. But objectively consider how much a refusal to compromise could cost you in the long run.
5. Confirm legal fees upfront
Despite doing everything right, you could still face no other choice but to find yourself an attorney. Find the right one for your situation. Just like doctors, lawyers also specialise in various areas of the law. And do some background checks. Before booking an appointment, find out what your prospective lawyer charges. When meeting with him/her don’t ignore the elephant in the room: ask how their fees will be structured, find out what additional disbursements you may be liable for, ask for regular, itemised bills, and keep tabs on them. Make sure consultations, telephone calls, emails and other communications are restricted to what is necessary, because every communication, meeting and liaison is generally charged for. And if you have a problem with the way s/he’s charging speak up! Underneath all that ego, attitude and bravado attorneys are, after all, also human. And most are nice, reasonable, normal people who are often willing to negotiate and compromise.
So who’s next in the Court’s firing line?
What is pertinent is that our Courts are starting to consider the billing of fees by skilled professionals within the broader South African context. They are striking a balance between the sometimes competing interests of the practitioners and the public they serve. What has also been recognised is that the elements of impropriety evidenced within the conduct of so many legal professionals appears, scarily, to be but a small indication of a wider malaise within our society. As observed by Owen Rogers in his article High Fees and Questionable Practices: “None of the little things that you will do, almost unthinkingly, will seem to be so bad in itself – an added 15 minutes to a time sheet here, a little white lie to cover a missed deadline there. After a few years, you will not even notice that you are lying and cheating and stealing every day. Your entire frame of reference will change.”
The most common defence to all these “little” transgressions is “everyone does it.” This does not make it right. Nor does it make it immune from the beady eyes of our Constitutional Court. In the opinion of the writer, it is but a matter of time before the principles applied in the Courts’ determinations of legal fees are extended to the fees charged by other professions. And possibly, ultimately, even fees charged by various other service providers in general. Ideally, it should be the leaders of our country who lead by example. But if they cannot overcome their insatiable greed, then rest assured that our Constitution will, ultimately (albeit unbearably slowly), prevail. Let us hope that this day comes before the contents of the Treasury are emptied into the bunkers of Nkandla.
Please note that this information is supplied for general information and does not constitute legal advice. It is advisable for you to contact a legal practitioner for guidance in respect of your unique requirements.