WHY are attorneys so expensive?  

WHY does my divorce cost so much?  

WHY is my attorney bill so high?  

WHY can’t you tell me what it’s going to cost me to (enter your legal action here)? 

WHY do lawyers get paid so much?  

WHY do I even need a lawyer when I can represent myself?  

WHY is litigation so expensive?  


I hear these questions on a fairly regular basis, from clients and people without experience in the legal world as well as people to whom the legal experience is not new. 
So, in a multi-part series, I am going to offer some of my insights of WHY.

PART THREE:  Attorney Malpractice Claims and their Longevity

So, we’ve got a lot of education, a long time to get experienced, and a specialized knowledge of everyone’s rights.  What else?  Oh yeah, that whole malpractice thing.

Attorneys are held to a higher standard of care when giving legal advice to clients; in plain English, this means attorney are held to a higher degree of responsibility than your Aunt Jane or Uncle Joe, or – wait for it – the internet.

If an attorney gives you advice, that attorney runs the risk that you have the right to sue for damages (read: oodles of money) if, basically, it turns out the advice is not what other attorneys in the field would have said or done under the circumstances.  There are a lot of specifics of course, but in general, every time an attorney opens his or her mouth to give advice or does something on behalf of a client, that attorney is in the cross-hairs of a future legal action for legal malpractice.  Even a casual conversation at a cocktail party or Sunday BBQ could be seen as an attorney giving legal advice.  Most reputable attorneys will err on the side of caution when giving advice or acting on a client’s behalf for just this very reason.  Don’t be put off if your friend’s Cousin Bob tells you to make an appointment rather than ask questions over flame licked Tri Tip done over the weekend in someone’s backyard.

More than likely, if you make a mistake at your job, it’s a bummer and might cause a headache or two, maybe you’ll get fired and have to find a new job.  But in the legal profession, lawyers hold their client’s livelihood, sometimes even their client’s very life, in their hands and one mistake could mean a permanent, irreversible error which will affect the rest of someone’s life (and in some instances, like wills or child custody, others’ lives, too).  The responsibility lawyers have for their clients is an incredibly complex and massive one.

Under California law, malpractice insurance is not required; what IS required, though, is that the attorney disclose to her client that she doesn’t carry malpractice insurance, and the disclosure has to be in writing if it seems like representation will be more than four hours.  Malpractice insurance, like other professional insurance policies, are pricey.  The general feeling of the law is that costs of doing business can be recouped by passing them on to a client in the form of increased fees, or as a passthrough of the cost itself.  So, basically, part of an attorneys’ hourly fee might be going to that pricey malpractice insurance policy, to protect the attorney against a malpractice lawsuit you might be bringing later.  

Some areas of practice, like probate/wills and trusts are more tricky than other areas of practice, because the person suffering damages resulting from the malpractice might not even come into play for years.  Imagine an attorney makes a mistake today on your will.  The mistake may not be realized until your beneficiary tries to inherit, and that could be decades from now.  But, the attorney who drafted the will may be on the hook for the mistake, and the beneficiary under your will who doesn’t even inherit until decades from now would have reason in the future to go after the attorney who originally drafted the will.  Carrying around that kind of risk is asking a lot of the attorney – would you want to do something today and have it come back to haunt you in say, oh, twenty-five years?  Probably not, but that’s exactly what is required of an attorney today.  The law is far more complex than this example, but that’s the general gist of a lawyer’s reality of exposure to risk.

To sum it all up, lawyers are expensive because their lives are essentially consumed by being an attorney.  It takes years of study to get that coveted license to practice law, more years to get the experience needed to be a good lawyer with a specialized knowledge of everyone’s rights.  And to top it all off, the attorney might be on the hook decades in the future for a mistake which was made today.  So why do it?

The cynical answer is “because attorneys are greedy bastards.”  Now, I know a number of attorneys who fit that bill, no doubt about it.  But for the most part, people are inspired to go to law school and pursue a legal career because they care about people, what happens to them, and really want to help their fellow man.  While some attorneys are good at litigation (arguing), other lawyers are good at transactions (think any document you might need to complete a transaction, like selling your business or preparing a contract); some lawyers are good at both – and you’re right, those lawyers are more expensive.  

Ultimately, what’s really at stake is the attorney’s ability to give the client her very best effort in light of her training, experience, and skills.  

And that, my dear friend, is WHY.

This article or any piece or part of it is not intended to provide legal advice.  This article or any piece or part of it is an expression of opinion only of the writer.  The content on this posting is provided “as is;” no representations are made that the content is error-free. Consult with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction on any legal questions or concerns.