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The High Cost of Lawyers

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Lawyers don’t have a very good reputation. The loosing party in any lawsuit hates his own counsel for failure and the other side’s for winning. The winner hates his lawyer because of his fees and so does the looser.

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Is $2,200 an Hour Reasonable?

Getting on in years, Eileen Newell of Toronto decided to sell some commercial property she owned. She engaged lawyer Lawrence Sax to handle the transaction.

When the deal was complete, Sax presented his bill for services rendered; $165,000 for 75 hours of work. That works out to $2,200 an hour.

91-year-old Ms. Newell disputed the amount and the issue eventually landed in Superior Court before Justice Edward Morgan. He took lawyer Sax to task saying “None of the respondent’s figures are credible; he was obviously making it all up as he went along,”

Justice Morgan reduced the fee to just over $26,000 and ordered Sax to pay costs of $48,000. On appeal, the original bill was reinstated minus 20 percent for poor record keeping.

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What Does a Lawyer Cost?

In September 2012, a court in Delaware awarded costs to lawyers amounting to $35,000 an hour in a case that involved the merger of two giant mining companies. Okay, that’s an aberration, but the hourly pay scale for lawyers is considerably higher than that of other professionals.

The British Columbia branch of the Canadian Bar Association gives the following warning: “You may approach a lawyer’s office like you approach a dentist’s office―you believe it’s going to be painful―not in your mouth, but in your pocketbook. You don’t know how much it’s going to cost, and you’re afraid to ask. All you know is it could cost a lot.”

“A lot” is anywhere between $100 and $1,000 an hour.

Obviously, legal fees vary widely according to the complexity of the law involved. But, for run-of-the-mill work such as wills and estates, immigration, real estate, etc., these are the sort of numbers to expect:

In Canada, the average lawyer charges about US$308 an hour;

In the United Kingdom, the average cost is about US$320 an hour;

LawPath.comin Australia says “Experienced lawyers in smaller or rural towns can typically charge from $100 to 200 (US$71―US$142) per hour while those in major urban areas can charge from $200 to $400 (US$142―US$284) per hour.”

But, people should try to avoid litigation in Texas where The Houston Chronicle reported in March 2017 that “Scores of Texas lawyers now charge US$1,000 or more per hour for their legal services.”

Meanwhile, the average hourly wage in Canada is US$21.14, in the U.K. it's US$14.54, in Australia US$12.97, and in the United States US$27.24.

Counsel for the Wealthy

The rich can hire lawyers while the poor qualify for government-funded legal aid; for many in the middle class neither option is available so they end up representing themselves.

According to an old proverb “A person who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” Yet increasingly, people are representing themselves in court because lawyers’ fees are so high they can’t afford to hire one. This despite the opinion of most legal professionals that acting as your own lawyer is most likely to turn out badly.

But, for most who choose this route it’s a matter of necessity. And, former Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin noted in a 2007 speech “Unfortunately, many Canadian men and women find themselves unable, mainly for financial reasons, to access the Canadian justice system. Some of them decide to become their own lawyers ... Others simply give up.”

In December 2012, Supreme Court Justice Richard Wagner agreed. He lamented that the high cost of legal help meant many Canadians are denied access to justice. He told The Globe and Mail “If you don’t make sure there is access to justice, it can create serious problems for democracy. It is dangerous …”

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Justifying Legal Fees

Lawyers get a bit defensive when questioned about their fees.

There are many websites on the Internet giving advice to lawyers on how handle client complaints about the size of their bills. They usually start by telling lawyers to stress they spend a minimum of seven years at university before they even start to practice; big money is involved in training to become a lawyer and this must be reflected in the fees they say.

Most lawyers graduate with a high debt load. A 2018 report by U.S. News and World Reports lists average graduate debts loads from $198,962 at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego to $79,813 at the University of Utah.

Lawyers point out that if they are charging $400 an hour that doesn’t all go into their bank accounts. They have to pay the salary of a legal secretary and cover their office rent and expenses, law society fees, and other costs of running a business. Lawyers working for a large firm have additional overhead expenses such as a share of the salaries of paralegals, receptionists, human resources, accounting, etc.

Lawyers also note that their jobs are very stressful and often involve 12- and 14-hour workdays. They also point out that they cannot afford to make mistakes that could be very costly to their clients.

Even so, about the only people who say lawyers’ fees are justified are lawyers themselves. Others draw attention to the fact that people such as engineers and nurses go through lengthy and costly training. They also have stressful jobs with high degrees of responsibility for error-free work but make far less than lawyers.

Self-Representation a Necessity

According to the Ontario Nurses Association acute care nurses make between $22 and $40 an hour. The median is $31 an hour. So, a Canadian nurse will have to work a tad over 10 hours to buy one hour of a lawyer’s time.

Small wonder then, that a nurse going through a contested divorce often does so without a lawyer.

Canada’s National Self-Represented Litigants Project says about 80 percent of the people attending family court do so without legal counsel. In civil cases, the number is 40 percent.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that between 2006 and 2015 the number of self-represented litigants (SRLs) in family court rose by 121 percent.

The Family Law Coach laments that this leads to an unequal delivery of justice: “Over a period of 4 years and 3 months ending April 6, 2016, in Ontario Superior Court cases where there was one self-rep and one represented client, the self-rep won only 14 percent of the time and lost 73 percent of the time.

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Pitfalls for Self-Represented

Judith McCormack runs Downtown Legal Services in Toronto, a place that gives legal advice to the poor. She is quoted by Maclean’s magazine as saying that “being your own lawyer is ‘like doing your own dental work or heart surgery … It’s a desperate response.’ ”

Lawyer Philip Slayton points out some of the pitfalls that lie ahead for do-it-yourself attorneys. Writing in Canadian Lawyer he notes that the self-represented are emotionally involved in the case and therefore unlikely to be able to present an argument based entirely on fact and logic.

The rules of procedure are mysterious to non-lawyers and can easily trip up those who try to steer through them on their own. SRLs find the process incredibly frustrating.

Self-Representation not Popular With Judges or Lawyers

Judges don’t like it when people represent themselves because it makes their job much more difficult. They must coach the person on what law applies to their case, on court procedures and the giving of evidence, and how to present an argument. At the same time, the judge must stay completely impartial. That’s a tough thing to do.

Here’s what Quebec Superior Court Chief Justice François Rolland says on that topic: “It’s not the role of the judge to help someone in the preparation of their case because the other party who may be represented by a lawyer may feel aggrieved.”

Do-it-yourself lawyers often get bogged down in irrelevant detail and this makes the court system inefficient and slows down the administration of justice in an already clogged system.

And, of course, lawyers don’t like those who chose to go into court without counsel. Not only does self-representation mean fewer fee-paying clients but it can be very frustrating when they have to oppose an amateur who doesn’t understand the legal process.

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Cutting the Cost of Legal Representation

But, self-representation is here and it’s growing, so everybody has to get used to it. All governments now have websites telling the do-it-your-selfers how to prepare and present their cases.

Numerous legal resource clinics have opened where law students volunteer to help people with their cases under the supervision of a lawyer. Also, many lawyers will take on a number of pro bono cases, working for free or at greatly reduced fees.

A newer feature that is growing in popularity is called “unbundling.” Here’s how University of Windsor law professor Julie Macfarlane describes it, “It’s kind of piecemeal work, so you say to a painter: OK, I can’t afford to hire you to paint my entire house, but I hate doing the ceilings” (Toronto Star).

So, people who can’t afford the full package can perhaps find the money for a bit of professional hand-holding through the trickier bits.

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A Legal Opinion

Bonus Factoids

  • Several people have described lawyers as those who can pick fly poop out of a bowl of pepper while wearing boxing gloves.
  • The United States has one lawyer for every 300 people; in France the ratio is one for every 1,403 people.

Sources

  • “Judge Slashes Elderly Client’s Legal Bill, Says Lawyer ‘Was Obviously Making It All up as He Went Along’ ” Jacques Gallant, Toronto Star, August 15, 2018.
  • “Which Law School Graduates Have the Most Debt?” U.S. News and World Reports, 2018.
  • “Self Representation.” The Family Law Coach, undated.
  • “Supreme Court Judge Warns of ‘Dangerous’ Flaws in the System.” Kirk Makin, Globe and Mail, December 13, 2012.
  • “The Rise of the Self-Represented Litigant and the Challenges for Family Lawyers.” Nicholas Bala and Rachel Birnbaum, Canadian Bar Association, October 2012.
  • “Judges Grapple With Unrepresented Litigants.” Luis Millan, The Lawyers Weekly, November 5, 2010.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on November 01, 2018:

When I was sorting out a will a few years ago I looked into legal costs. I considered 3 areas, Surrey (south east), Dorset (south) and Nottinghamshire (midlands). Nottinghamshire was the cheapest, Surrey was twice as much and Dorset was half way between the two. The range was from £125 to £250 per hour.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 31, 2018:

Hello, Larry, as Rupert rightly point out, the issue is not confirmed to America alone, but Britain, China, and other coubtries. The high cost of training as a lawyer, I reasoned is not a valid reason to charge such high fees. Juges can finally decide and fix the price for litigation. Thanks for weighing in and commenting.

Larry Slawson from North Carolina on October 31, 2018:

Thank you for sharing. Lawyer fees are incredibly high. Its a shame that our system is set up in this manner. Poor and middle class Americans couldn't possibly afford the representation they need today.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 30, 2018:

Hello, Rupert, I am as much concern about the issue, and I had made a study of it and found it very challenging. This your article is a supplement to all that I have learn. It takes on the international level. Thanks for sharing.