How to Dispute Attorney's Fees

Three Parts:Understanding Your BillWriting a LetterUsing Arbitration

Massive fees are the punchline to many lawyer jokes, but actually disputing your attorney's fees is no laughing matter. Maybe you were perfectly happy with your attorney's work on your case – until you got the bill. Or maybe you fired your attorney after a series of run-ins and poor communication, only to receive a bill for services you don't think he even performed. Whatever the circumstances, you have ways to dispute attorney's fees without dealing with the stress of taking a lawyer to court.

Part 1
Understanding Your Bill

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    Review the initial fee agreement. You should have a written fee agreement you received when you hired the attorney that explains the fees you will be charged.
    • Your fee agreement should include details on how often you'll be billed, how costs will be computed, and the rates at which the attorney will bill for work completed.[1]
    • Your fee agreement also may include an estimate of the total amount your case will cost, but keep in mind this is just an estimate – if the billed amount turns out to be higher than that estimate, that doesn't necessarily mean you were overcharged.
    • Make sure you understand how the attorney calculates his or her fees and how billing works. Descriptions in the fee agreement can be abstract until you actually get your first bill and see how it works for yourself, so you may have thought you understood something initially, but now realize you don't. If you have any questions about the fee agreement itself, call your attorney and ask about it.
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    Scrutinize your bill. Look at the bill in light of the fee agreement, your own records, and your knowledge and understanding of the attorney to pinpoint areas where you might have been overcharged.
    • Keep in mind that the way attorneys bill their clients varies. This attorney's bill may differ from one you may have received from another attorney in another case, but that doesn't mean you were overcharged or the bill is incorrect.[2]
    • If you paid an upfront retainer, and this is your first bill, it should also include details on how the retainer was exhausted.
    • Most attorneys bill in six-minute increments.[3] For example, if your bill lists a phone call with the opposing attorney, and you were billed for 0.3 hours, that means the attorney spent 18 minutes on the phone. Therefore, if your attorney charges $200 an hour, you should have been billed $60 for that phone call. Check the math for each entry and make sure it's correct.
    • Many fee disputes are the result of incorrect calculations on the bill. This is especially likely if the bill was produced by someone on the attorney's staff, but also can happen even if the bill is automatically generated by the attorney's billing software.[4]
    • You also should pay attention to the descriptions for time spent on your case, and think about whether that time was necessary.[5] For example, if your lawyer markets himself as an expert in family law and is a member of several family law and litigation societies, repeatedly billing you hours for research may be an unnecessary expense.
    • Likewise, if several attorneys are working on your case, you should look at the time billed for each and consider whether they are duplicating each other's efforts, driving up your bill.[6]
    • Check your own records of your interactions with your attorney to make sure you're not being over-billed for phone calls or meetings that never happened.[7]
    • Compare the description of the services to the rate at which you were billed. You shouldn't have to pay the higher attorney rate for clerical tasks such as typing or filing.[8]
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    Call your attorney. Before you formally dispute the bill, you may want to allow your attorney the opportunity to review and explain the bill.[9][10]
    • In some situations the attorney may not even have seen the bill before it was sent – or she may have simply given it a cursory glance as she signed it. Typically the bills are either automatically generated by the attorney's billing software or prepared by an assistant, and there may be an error of which your attorney was not aware.
    • This is especially true if you had worked out a special agreement with your attorney that differed from her normal practice. For example, if she agreed not to charge you for copies, but there's a line on your bill for copies, it may be that the bill was automatically generated and she forgot to remove that cost before it was sent.
    • In most cases, you should give your attorney the benefit of the doubt that an honest error was made and give her a chance to correct it. However, if you had a negative or difficult relationship with the attorney, you may want to proceed with writing a formal letter rather than making a phone call first.

Part 2
Writing a Letter

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    Use standard business format. Your word processing application typically will have a template you can use for writing business letters.
    • Include your name and address as well as the attorney's name, firm name, and address where you're sending the letter. If you have an account number or client number given to you by the firm, you should also include that for identification purposes.
    • On the subject line of your letter, include the date of the bill you're disputing and the case name, if any, that relates to the services for which you were billed.
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    State that you dispute the fees. Begin your letter with a clear statement that you dispute the fees you were charged.
    • Identify the particular bill by its date, and list the specific items you dispute. If there is more than one item you want to dispute, you may want to format them in a bullet-point list. Identify the charge you dispute specifically and provide a brief description of why you dispute it.[11]
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    Ask for a detailed accounting. If your bill doesn't go into detail regarding the charges, you should ask the attorney to provide you with one so you can better understand the charges.
    • Your bill should have included an itemized list with a description of each individual service or cost, and the amount of time for which you were billed. If this level of detail wasn't included in the original bill, you have the right to see it.[12]
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    Suggest a compromise. You may have an alternative amount that you believe is fair and are willing to pay.
    • Keep your tone firm and professional, but indicate that you are reasonable and willing to work towards a solution that satisfies both of you. Avoid making accusations or insults, and don't use this letter to complain about the quality of representation.[13]
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    Close your letter with a deadline. Give the attorney a week or two to respond to your letter before you pursue other action.
    • Request a written response by the date you list.[14] You can indicate your plans, such as if you intend to submit the matter to arbitration, but avoid making threats with which you don't intend to follow through. Remember that you're writing to an attorney – he's not going to be intimidated by a threat to sue.
    • If your attorney agrees to your compromise, make sure you receive a new bill with the correct amount before you send payment.[15]
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    Send the letter using certified mail. Using this method provides you with proof the letter was received by your attorney.
    • Make a copy of your letter after you've signed it, but before you mail it, so you have it for your records.
    • You also might consider including a copy of the bill you're disputing, so the attorney can look at it while he reads your letter rather than having to pull it up from his own records.
    • If you referenced the initial fee agreement in your letter, you might want to include a copy of that as well. Attorneys are accustomed to including copies of any documents referenced.

Part 3
Using Arbitration

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    Check with your state or local bar association. Many bar associations have fee arbitration programs you can use.
    • Some state or local bar association programs may give you the choice between using arbitration or mediation. With mediation, a neutral third-party works with you and your attorney to come to a compromise on the dispute, but he or she doesn't make any decision on the matter. If you choose arbitration, on the other hand, you will go before an arbitrator – typically another attorney or a retired judge – who will listen to both sides and make a decision.[16]
    • The mediation process gives you a little more control over the final outcome than arbitration, because the mediator doesn't have the power to dictate a resolution to the case.
    • If the bar association offers arbitration only, find out if it's voluntary or mandatory. With voluntary arbitration, there's a chance your attorney may not agree to participate – in which case a lawsuit would be your only option if you wanted to continue to dispute the fee.[17]
    • Find out the eligibility requirements for the program before you fill out a form requesting mediation or arbitration. For example, in some states you must make an effort to resolve the dispute on your own before you can use mediation or arbitration services.[18]
    • Typically the bar association will only work with attorneys licensed in that state, and on disputes regarding bills for legal matters conducted within the state.[19] If you retained a lawyer to work with you on a case tried in a different state, this might be a factor in which state's arbitration program you're able to use.
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    Fill out the required form. Typically the bar association has a request form you must use to initiate an arbitration proceeding.
    • You usually can get this form by calling or writing the bar association. You also may be able to download the form from the bar association's website and return it online.[20]
    • The form will include questions regarding when you hired the attorney and what you hired him to do, as well as details about your fee dispute.[21]
    • If you have the ability to attach documents as exhibits, such as the bill you're disputing or your initial fee agreement, you should do so. Make sure the committee who reviews your application has all the information they need to understand the dispute.[22]
    • Make a copy of everything you submit for your own records before you send your application.[23]
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    Wait for review. In some jurisdictions, your request must first be reviewed by a committee before you are approved to use arbitration.[24]
    • If the program has a voluntary arbitration system, the bar association also must contact your attorney and find out if he or she is willing to submit to binding arbitration.[25]
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    Sign arbitration consent forms. Most programs have a written consent form which you must sign agreeing to be bound by the arbitrator's decision.
    • Once the arbitrators have been selected and your consent forms have been signed, the bar association will send you notice of the date, time, and location of your arbitration hearing.[26]
    • Your notice will explain whether you have to appear in person or if the hearing will be conducted by conference call, and typically will include a basic outline of the procedure that will be observed at the hearing as well as instructions on how to best prepare for the hearing.[27]
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    Prepare for your hearing. Although arbitration is less formal than a trial, you still should prepare as though you are going to court.
    • Depending on the rules in your state, you typically are able to introduce exhibits and call witnesses.[28]
    • If you are allowed to have an attorney represent you during the arbitration, you might consider talking to someone. Look for an attorney who is experienced in handling attorney's fees disputes.
    • Make copies of any documents related to the fee dispute to take with you to the hearing. You also might want to write notes for yourself regarding the items in your bill you dispute and your reasons for disputing them, so you can present your case in an organized fashion.
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    Attend your hearing. In some jurisdictions you will have to be physically present at a live hearing, while other bar associations hold fee dispute hearings over the phone using a conference call system.[29]
    • If the dispute is over a relatively small amount of money, you may only have a single arbitrator. In most states, the bar association provides a three-person panel to arbitrate disputes involving $10,000 or more. Often these panels will include at least one non-attorney arbitrator.[30]
    • Both you and your attorney will have the opportunity to tell the arbitrator or panel your sides of the story. Although the rules of evidence and procedure typically are more relaxed than a formal trial, an arbitration hearing generally has a trial-like format.[31]
    • The arbitrator may make his or her decision at the conclusion of the proceedings, but typically you must wait to receive written notice of the decision after the hearing. In most cases you should receive word of the arbitrator's decision within 30 days.[32]


  • Fee disputes don't typically result in discipline of a lawyer under attorney ethics rules in most states. However, if you believe your attorney has violated ethics rules, you should contact your local bar association or ethics board and file a complaint.[33][34]

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