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How to Resolve a Billing Dispute with an Attorney

Ever received a bill for legal services that takes your breath away? It’s a common experience. In fact, billing disputes between clients and lawyers are one of the leading complaint types reported by America’s state bar associations.

Fortunately, with the right preparation and approach many billing complaints can be resolved simply and effectively between you and your lawyer—without resorting to outside intervention. Why? Because legal fees typically have a substantial margin of profit built in. Making adjustments is relatively easy for law firms, so working it out with you is far more appealing than the expense and potential damage to professional reputation that may come if you’re not satisfied.

This How-to offers guidelines for resolving billing disputes with your lawyer, and shows how PeopleClaim's online dispute resolution system can help you assert your rights and get your bill whittled down to what’s fair and reasonable.

Common Problems

  • Double billing (frequent; due to human error in data entry)
  • Lack of billing detail
  • Hard-to-understand billing statements
  • Runaway costs, including:
    • too many lawyers assigned to your business
    • costs associated with turnover in legal team
    • unneeded research or use of consultants
    • extravagant / unwarranted expenses
    • inflated numbers re meeting lengths, phone calls, lawyer time vs. clerical, etc.

Step One: Know your rights.

Client billing rights vary according to state laws, and it's a good idea to ask your state bar association which laws apply to your situation. (You can find your state (and local) through the American Bar Association’s online directory.) In most cases a client has more rights than are identified in a lawyer’s legal fee agreement.
Here are some of the rights you could reasonably expect:

  • A written fee agreement, including
    • fee basis (e.g., hourly, retainer, flat fee, or contingency)
    • if hourly, what rates you’ll be charged for lawyer time vs. paralegal time vs. clerical time. Tip: be sure to clarify whether the attorney intends to charge you for the time spent preparing your bill. Legitimately this is lawyer overhead, not your expense.
    • anyincidental expensesyou'll be responsible for (e.g. copies, faxes, courier or messenger service, postage)
  • an estimate of anticipated costs before signing a contract for services
  • prompt billing (so you’ll have a heads-up and can prevent racking up large amounts that will be subject to future dispute)
  • an understandable billing format: complex and lengthy printouts with unfamiliar abbreviations may unintentionally (or intentionally) deter clients from careful examination of charges
  • an honest and accurate accounting of work performed on your case
  • an itemized breakdown of any hourly charges on your statement (A bill that says "Professional Services: 12.2 hours @ $280" is called “block billing” and could be inflated.)
  • an explanation of any activities and charges that are unclear (e.g., if for research or phone calls, what was the purpose and how did these add value to your case?) Note: time spent explaining or disputing a bill should not be billable.
  • advance notice of any increase in fees Tip: Examine January billing closely; traditionally, January is when law firms apply any fee increases. Note: In some states fee increases are not legal unless both parties agree.

Remember: In most states you are guaranteed more rights than are specified in a typical legal fee agreement. For detailed information about client billing rights contact your state bar association.

Next: Review your fee agreement and talk to your lawyer.

Examining your fee agreement may explain what’s puzzling about your bill. If not, you need to talk with your lawyer directly. He or she may be may be able to solve your problem quickly if it’s an easily recognizable mistake such as double billing. If not, and you believe the charges are inaccurate or unfair, you’ll want to put your complaint in writing and seek resolution.

Important: If you think your lawyer is stealing from funds intended for you, you need to report this to your local bar association, and possibly your state attorney general’s office.

How PeopleClaim can help: Filing your complaint online at is an effective way to document details and get it to your lawyer, and it can add some pressure and urgency: you can choose to have your complaint post publicly if the problem is not resolved within ten days. Besides being an incentive for the lawyer to fix your problem quickly, public posting opens the door to communication with other claimants who may have valuable experience dealing with lawyers’ charges. PeopleClaim’s negotiated process of settlement allows exchange of offers and counteroffers, a practical alternative to additional legal expenses (which could easily exceed the amount you’re disputing). For example, a Florida man used PeopleClaim to challenge a lawyer’s bill for $3,275, and was able to settle within 10 days for $1,190, an adjustment of nearly two thirds of the billed amount.

Do’s and Don’ts


  • Keep a record. Write down dates of meetings and phone calls—start time and end time and what was discussed—and save all documents, canceled checks, and email or hardcopy correspondence.
  • Act quickly after receipt of a bill you question. It’s much easier for the law firm to make adjustments to your bill if you haven’t let the disputed amount compound and become too large. Also inaction on your part may signal agreement to their charges.
  • Be pleasant and calm, but make it clear that you know your rights.
  • Put your complaint in writing if you’re not able to resolve it with a phone call. Be specific: refer to line items in the bill.
  • Make it clear that you know your rights. Refer to specific terms of your written fee agreement, if you have one.
  • Be specific about what you want: name a number you believe is reasonable for the disputed amount.
  • Set a deadline. (Two weeks is standard.)
  • Make a good-faith attempt to reach a negotiated settlement before suing your attorney (expensive), or seeking arbitration services through your local bar association.

How PeopleClaim can help:: PeopleClaim's online process helps you state your complaint and assemble all relevant facts: you can attach text documents or photos, and even have the system make a timeline for you. You can name the adjustment you’re seeking, and establish a deadline for resolution.

PeopleClaim - Stating your complaint
Above: Stating your complaint


  • Don’t use legal terms unnecessarily. You won’t impress the lawyer, who knows his language better than you do, and you may say something that weakens your case.
  • Do not threaten or overstate your case.
  • • Do not defame the lawyer or his/her profession. Be polite and truthful, and avoid inflammatory words like "liar," "shark," "shyster," or other words that aren’t necessary to your complaint.

Add some extra oomph to your complaint

PeopleClaim offers an arsenal of powerful optional services to help get your problem resolved.

  • Choose PeopleClaim’s Public Posting option. Your complaint will post on the Internet if it’s not settled in 10 days.
  • Invite a free consultation from lawyers through PeopleClaim if you feel enough is at stake to sue your lawyer. (This is voluntary, and any further engagement would be between you and the lawyer. PeopleClaim is not an attorney referral service and does not participate in any fees you may agree to.)
  • Bring your case to the attention of relevant professional associations and government regulators PeopleClaim makes this easy for you. For example, if you were to choose this option your complaint could be sent to your local and/or state bar associations; also to your state's Supreme Court and/or attorney general if larceny or other illegal activity is involved. Note: Filing a claim through a bar association or government agency will require a separate process, which you'll need to follow through on your own if you're not contacted by the agency directly.
PeopleClaim - Send your complaint to the bar association.
Above: Send your complaint to the bar association.

An ounce of prevention . . .

Looking ahead, be sure you’re doing what you can to check the reputations of lawyers and law firms before you engage their services. Your state bar association offers directories of members, where you can check their professional status for things like disbarment or disciplinary history. If the lawyer has been disciplined by the bar, you may be able to access specific details. You can also ask if such actions may be pending but not yet determined or on record. Your local newspaper’s archives may have relevant information if a lawyer’s name has been in the news. For additional perspective you can always check names of lawyers or law firms via search engines. And it’s worthwhile checking to see if there are unresolved complaints in our system against a lawyer you’re considering. When you’ve found a lawyer you’re comfortable with, be sure to:

  • Discuss fees before engaging services. Go over compensation and fee schedules and ask questions. If there’s anything you’re uncertain about, don’t leave it that way.
  • Get a fee agreement in writing. Don’t hire a lawyer without one. A signed agreement means there should be fewer surprises when the bill arrives. And if there are, your complaint, referring to the specifics of the agreement, may be all it takes to set the matter straight.

These two preliminary steps are important: ignorance, assumptions, and failure to ask questions about fees are a primary cause of many of the disputes about lawyers’ charges to clients.

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