Why are lawyers so darn expensive?

I’ve been mulling over this question for sometime now.  The cost of legal services is something that inevitably becomes an issue for clients (even the large corporates) and understandably so.  If you go to your doctor, odds are your medical aid will cover a portion of your costs.  When you litigate, there is a chance that you may never recover your costs and even if you are able to recover your costs you rarely recover much more than a percentage of your actual costs.  To add to this, lawyer’s fees are hardly inexpensive.

Attorneys generally charge for their services on an hourly basis although I have seen some attorneys charged fixed amounts for certain services (usually basic agreements or certain types of straightforward court matters).  Those hourly fees vary from a few hundred rands an hour for more junior attorneys (usually candidate attorneys or newly qualified and less experienced attorneys) to hourly rates of over R1 000 per hour (some of the large law firms charge their more experienced partners out at R2 000 plus).

If you are going to litigate (wind up in court) then you may well have to have an advocate briefed.  An advocate is a lawyer who specialises in court work.  They spend most of their time in court or preparing to go to court so they usually have far more experience in court work than attorneys who traditionally handle the back end stuff and liaise with clients.  Advocates are not permitted to have direct contact with clients and are therefore briefed by attorneys who must remain involved to a lesser or greater degree.  Advocates charge on an hourly basis for work done in chambers and will often charge a daily rate for time spent in court.  This, of course, adds to your costs when you litigate.

It all begs the question why lawyers are so expensive.  There are many reasons why it costs so much to use a lawyer and focussing on attorneys for the time being, these reasons can include the seniority of the attorney; the size of the firm (and hence overheads and premiums for having access to those resources) and flexible or inflexible fee structures.  Relatively speaking not all attorneys charge the same for their services.  There are attorneys who charge less than others and a number of those attorneys are really good at what they do.  On the other hand the maxim “goedkoop is duurkoop” does also apply here.  Just because you are paying less doesn’t mean that you are getting a good deal.  The opposite can also be true.  Just because you instruct an attorney at a large firm who charges a bundle for his/her services doesn’t mean you are getting value for your money.

Generally speaking I think it is fair to say that briefing an attorney who costs a little more pays off.  An attorney who charges a bit more can afford to reinvest in ongoing practice development which translates into a better service for you, the client.  This practice development involves a more comprehensive library (a more knowledgeable attorney); better support services (a more efficient service) and a more developed infrastructure equipped to provide a more effective service.  Another important factor is whether your attorney works intelligently.  If he/she does then you may be charged slightly less than another attorney and still receive a very effective service.

Next time you instruct an attorney, bear in mind what your hard earned cash is buying you.  At the end of the day, you really don’t want a half-baked job done.  That will only cost you more more in the future, either to fix the earlier job or to deal with issues which should have been dealt with in the first place.

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