There is a famous Chicago family law firm that does a lot of advertising and they get a lot of cases.  They also end up with a lot of unhappy clients.  That’s because while their marketing makes people think they are one thing, it quickly becomes obvious that if you hire them you are going to be ripped off.  I’ve seen divorce cases they’ve handled where before the first court appearance is made they’ve billed over $10,000.00 in legal work on a not complicated case.

What happens apparently is that they will bill their clients for “research.”  While there are some cases where research is needed, most family law cases don’t require it.  If you are a lawyer and have to bill for research in to child support statutes or custody law, then you must be handling one of your first cases.  This “research” is not the same as a client who brings some unique issue forward such as determining the international custody arrangement the United States has with a country like Morocco. That’s not an issue that comes up more than once in the lifetime of most lawyers and would be legitimate.

So does this mean that all lawyer research bills are ripoffs? No.

The most common, legitimate legal research that takes place for the average person who hires an attorney comes in two cases. The first  is criminal law.  If your attorney can find a case that has gone to the Appellate or Supreme Court and can help you avoid jail then that’s worthy research. I’m not talking about minor retail theft situations. I’m referring to major felonies that can result in long jail time.  The catch is that if they’ve done the research on one case, confirming their findings haven’t been over-turned by a new court case should not take more than 30 minutes or so.

The other common area of legit research is in civil cases. If you are trying to argue for or against a motion for summary judgment, research in to similar situations makes a ton of sense and can be the reason you win or lose a case. It’s especially relevant when the Judge is asking for a legal brief in support of your argument.

So what should you do to make sure your legal bills aren’t inflated with bogus research charges?  Here are some tips:

  1. Before you hire the lawyer, ask if they anticipate billing for research. If the answer is yes, ask what for.
  2. It’s not inappropriate to ask that they contact you for approval before billing for significant research.
  3. If your bill has a charge that simply says “research” and doesn’t explain what was done, ask them to clarify and provide a copy of the research results. Most legitimate research will result in some sort of a memo, especially at a larger firm where more than one person is working on a case.
  4. If it happens, ask why a more expensive senior lawyer is billing for research instead of a paralegal or cheaper associate.
  5. Most importantly, if the research you are billed for seems basic (e.g. they charge you to look up child support rates), call them out on it.

The good news is that most lawyers are honest, but I’ve seen enough cases where legal bills are severely inflated that you have to be on the lookout.