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Helping your attorney will save you money

Posted: December 11, 2008 9:08 p.m.
Updated: December 12, 2008 4:30 a.m.

The average legal client in the Santa Clarita Valley is an individual or small company. Their legal needs and economic situations differ greatly from those of the corporation, insurance company, financial, governmental or other more powerful institutions that commonly are opposing the individual consumer.

In representing local people against these potent adversaries, the consumer attorney and his client are in an inherent monetary disadvantage in fighting these forces through the court system.

We have all seen how the rich and influential power brokers and entities can outspend their opponents by a multiplying factor. Conversely, many citizens who have righteous and just cases simply lack the money to hire an attorney or prosecute their claim against the overwhelming onslaught often marshaled by the other side. Other times, the consumer, even one who is a successful middle-class person, simply cannot afford full legal services.

Therefore, "innovative representation" models have been developed to ease the burden on the consumer. One of the ways to reduce this prejudice is straightforward answer-work on your own case, albeit under strict supervision of legal counsel. This method allows clients to reduce their fees by handling simple tasks, such as filing court documents, serving papers, drafting declarations, gathering evidence (taking photographs, soliciting witness statements, obtaining medical records, providing damage estimates, etc.) and writing basic correspondence.

Sometimes, clients become so involved in their case that their lawyer does not even become the attorney of record. The "background" attorney is retained to guide the individual on how to fill out forms, inform of the applicable law, instruct on the rules of court, and advise on the legal jargon. They can also "ghostwrite" the more complicated matters. This is especially effective in using small- claims court, where attorneys are barred.

The consumer must keep in mind this system has limitations associated with the degree of complexity of the issues and the capabilities of the client. This unique system encourages "a pay as you go" approach with usually an agreed-upon flat fee for each meeting, or piecemeal project performed by the attorney reached before any work is done and due immediately upon completion. It avoids up-front retainer fees, open-ended fee commitments, contingency fees and other elements commonly found intimidating and expensive by consumers.

Another emerging concept for representing the "little person" is the flat fee. Instead of an hourly billing statement or percentage of the recovery, the client and lawyer agree on a one-time fee in exchange for a specific legal service. Such understandings can range from a simple $25 letter to a flat fee to handle a matter up to and through trial. Its advantage to the consumer is knowledge of the exact cost for the entire service before any representation or case begins.

And last, bartering has grown into a noteworthy method for the average consumer to obtain quality legal service, especially for the small business. Most consumer attorneys are small businesses themselves with similar needs that cannot be satisfied by their own employees. Instead of spending money for outside vendor services, clients can provide valuable services to their attorney in exchange for legal work. The client can usually more readily afford parting with inventory or personal services rather than cash while achieving the same level of competent representation.

When contacting any attorney, you should consider the above alternatives to the standard hourly and/or contingency-fee agreements. Remember, most lawyers will assume a basic approach on any cost/fee quote.

Thus, it is wise you raise the above options with your legal counsel before deciding on pursuing any matter or entering into any arrangement.

Kevin Yeam is a civil litigation attorney in Santa Clarita. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "It's The Law" appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association.


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