How to assess a bill from your lawyer
Last week I posted about a case where a condominium spent over $150,000.00 on a court application against an owner. The judge was very critical of the condominium's actions and suggested that the board made its aggressive decisions based upon a belief that the condominium would recover all of its costs under section 134(5) of the Act. I received several comments about the extraordinary costs, which could have been avoided if the parties had acted more reasonably. I promised that I would explain how a condominium, or any client, could assess a lawyer's account. I'll do that today. Assessment Process There are so many resources online about assessing a lawyer's account that there is no point in explaining the process in detail here. That said, there are three points that I wish to make about the process. First, the process is easier if you start it within the first month after the lawyer delivered the account to you. If it has been more than one month since the lawyer delivered the account to you, you will need the permission of the court to assess it. Second, I do not mean to dissuade anyone from pursuing a proper assessment, but it is possible that costs could be awarded against you. You should keep this in mind when considering an assessment, especially if the account is fair and reasonable. Third, there are certain factors that an assessment officer will consider when determining if the bill is fair and reasonable, including the time spent by the lawyer, the complexity of the issues, the issues at stake, the responsibility of the lawyer, the importance of the case to the client, the skill and competence of the lawyer, the result, the client's ability to pay, the client's expectations about the cost, and whether any steps taken by the lawyer were unnecessary or not in the client's interests. For more information on the process see the Law Help Ontario site for a great summary of the assessment process. Avoiding Assessments & Dissatisfaction with Accounts I also want to provide a few tips to help clients avoid dissatisfaction with the accounts they receive from their lawyers. First, discuss your cost expectations with the lawyer before work begins. The lawyer should be able to give you a reasonable approximation of the costs that you can expect, including any expenses (disbursements) that the lawyer may incur on your behalf. Ask if your lawyer provides set fees for certain services, like registering liens or drafting by-laws. Second, make sure you are familiar with your lawyer's accounting and billing policies. Is there a set fee? Will the lawyer bill hourly? Who, apart from the lawyer, will work on the file? How are disbursements billed? How often are accounts sent out? When are accounts due after they are delivered? What are the payment options? Third, remember that if you make it easy the lawyer will usually charge less. Instead of handing over boxes of documents, sort through the boxes and provide only what the lawyer actually needs. Summaries of the file and charts describing the documents provided to the lawyer are also very helpful. Also, keep in mind that multiple emails or calls a day will result in multiple replies from your lawyer. Try to be succinct and limit communications to a "need-to-know" basis. Fourth, if you are dissatisfied with an account you receive, talk to your lawyer about your concerns. Many lawyers will reduce their accounts if you have a legitimate concern (note: "I just don't want to pay" is generally not persuasive). Remember, law is a business; we need to keep our clients happy to stay in business so we are normally willing to work with you to address any concerns you have about the account. Fifth, if your lawyer is not receptive to your concerns about their accounts, look elsewhere. There are plenty of lawyers that are willing and able to help you. If you need help finding a lawyer, contact your local CCI chapter (for condominium matters) or the Law Society of Upper Canada for a referral.