Many staffing firms hire outside lawyers for litigation and other matters. What you pay for the lawyers you choose depends on how well you negotiate.

Law firms use engagement letter contracts to document fees and other aspects of the attorney-client relationship, but those mainly protect the law firm’s interests. To limit your costs, you should assertively discuss fees and other costs at the outset and supplement or amend the engagement letter contract. Here are some tips for doing that.

Bill rates. Attorneys’ hourly rates are flexible. Many firms have several alternative rates for each attorney and may also deviate from them if asked, so you should bargain for lower rates that are guaranteed for the duration of the matter or for a long period, like three years, to avoid the cost of annual rate hikes and attorney promotions to higher rate levels. For many matters, you can require budgets and timetables.

One-lawyer staffing. Many law firms routinely staff matters with at least two lawyers (a partner and an associate), who divide up some tasks related to your case but double up on every phone call, document and hearing, increasing cost and often reducing effectiveness.

Many cases can be handled most economically by one lawyer — a senior associate or even a more expensive partner. You can require one-lawyer staffing as the default, with multiple-lawyer staffing and consultations requiring your informed consent. If law firms protest that their capable associates must be “supervised” by partners, that supervision should be at the firms’ expense, not yours.

Billable work. Billable time should cover only actual work on your matter, not pre-existing documents or tools, invoice preparation, multiple-pass proofing of briefs and memos, training of junior staff, or orientation of new/replacement staff to your matter. If you hire a firm for its expertise in your matter, you should not pay to educate its junior lawyers on the topic. If you must accept multiplelawyer staffing, you should not pay for internal communications, meetings, summaries, reports, or memos among them. You should be copied on any documented research that you are billed for. You and the law firm should agree on what percentage of non-working travel time will be billed, if it is billed at all.

No automatic pilot. Litigation lawyers should be thorough, but they do not always need to file every possible motion or take every allowable piece of discovery. Each of those expensive processes should be undertaken, if at all, only for strategic and cost-justified reasons, with your consent.

Invoicing. To help you assess the reasonableness of billed fees, require invoices to disclose the time spent on each discrete task and not “block” the time for all tasks performed during entire days. Billed tasks should be specific — no vague descriptions like “review documents,” “attention to case” or “work on file.”

Expenses. If your matters require lawyer travel or extraordinary expenses, you should agree on rules for airfare, hotels, meals, and other items. You should also either ban or agree on billing for administrative support and routine office expenses, which traditionally were unbilled as part of law firms’ general overhead. Commercial computerized legal research (like Westlaw) substitutes for library expense, which also was traditionally not billed to clients. If you agree to pay for it, negotiate the cost and do not accept the research vendor’s printout of the theoretical “retail” search fees (hundreds of dollars per hour) as the actual cost of the research.

Most law firms pay flat fees for these services, regardless of detailed usage, so researching your matter may cost them nothing incrementally.

Retain control. Naturally, you control binding settlement commitments, but you should also forbid your lawyers to even suggest, discuss, solicit, or entertain settlement ideas without your prior approval. Although you should confer with your lawyers before communicating with opposing parties, you should not let the lawyers ban direct communication between the parties. Ethically, lawyers can’t talk to represented opposing parties, but parties are free to talk to each other.

Sample billing guidelines. I will share a sample billing guidelines document; email your request to me at the address below.