Q & A

Weighing the Risks & Benefits of Hiring an Attorney

An interview with Peter Noone, Partner at Avery, Dooley & Noone, LLP

Federal employees who choose to hire an attorney may worry about the possible price of litigation, particularly when facing an adversary as formidable as the United States Federal Government. Peter Noone, partner at Avery Dooley, helps federal employees understand the cost of hiring an attorney and provides some tips for performing a cost-benefit analysis.

Federal employees who have purchased personal liability insurance may have their legal fees covered by the insurance company. But for those who do not have insurance, or whose insurance does not cover the legal matter at issue, an attorney will typically request a significant legal retainer to begin representation of the employee. Essentially, a retainer is a standard pre-payment of legal fees to cover legal services.

In our practice, initial retainers often range from $5,000 to $10,000, but the actual amount ultimately depends on the specific circumstances of the case. As work is completed, your attorney will draw money from this retainer to pay for his or her services. Any unused portion of the retainer will be returned to you in full.

We give each of our clients an honest, and up-front assessment of how much money they should expect to spend. This assessment begins during an initial consultation with the potential client, which we provide free of charge. While this number is only an approximation, it is based on our experience with similar cases. We also communicate with our clients throughout the process to ensure that the client understands all relevant fees, and that we are aware of any changed circumstances which might require us to adjust our estimate. Keep in mind that each law firm is different and it is always advisable to have a candid discussion with your attorney about fees and expenses at the outset.

In our practice, we have developed several ways to help clients deal with the cost of representation:

  1. We have designed ways to make the discovery process much more efficient, thereby significantly reducing fees during one of the most costly portions of litigation.
  2. Depending on our clients’ willingness and ability, we may ask them to take a more active role in preparing drafts of legal documents, affidavits, and briefs. For example, a client may write the first draft of specific documents during an investigation (e.g., a reply to a request for information) before review and final an experienced attorney at Avery Dooley for review. We know how personal these cases are, and we encourage our clients to stay involved.If a client has strong writing and organization skills, we welcome his or her participation.
  3. If we prevail, our clients often recover attorney fees—our attorney will help to recover fees when ever the possibility exists.

At Avery Dooley, we keep our clients up to date about their cases to ensure that they are well informed about the costs and benefits throughout the process. We take your risk of investing in legal counsel seriously, and work hard to develop a strategy that accounts for that risk in light of the specific facts of your case.

We know that clients are at a disadvantage when hiring an attorney, in large part because most individuals have a limited understanding of the law. How can you be sure you are investing your money wisely in legal fees and not simply burning through your savings on a case that is virtually un-winnable?

In our practice at Avery Dooley, we often convince potential clients not to pursue a case or hire an attorney. As a firm, we believe in performing careful, up-front assessments to determine the relative risks and strengths of a case, and telling clients when the risk outweighs the potential reward.

When you are considering an attorney, demand this kind of straightforward assessment and consideration. While you may be focused on future benefits or the “upside,” you also need to educate yourself about the likely significant challenges you may face. Before proceeding with a legal action, engage in a thorough cost-benefit analysis with your attorney to ensure you understand:

  • An estimate of what the proposed action or legal assistance may cost.
  • A clear understanding of what “success” in your case means, and how likely that outcome may be attained given the facts of your case.
  • A sense of your maximum “investment” in legal fees, and whether your desired goal is possible at that price point.
  • Any other risks you may be taking on. For example, certain legal action may place other benefits, including retirement benefits, at risk.

First and foremost, check to ensure your attorney has significant experience in federal employment law. Ideally, your attorney will even have specific experience working against your federal agency. Federal employment law is a complex arena, and as such a general practitioner may not be able to effectively represent you when your career is at stake.