It depends on the kind of work whether estimates can be made or fixed fee/alternative arrangements used. I suspect you are talking about litigation where it's difficult sometimes to know how complex the facts and law are going to be at the outset and one major uncertainty is how much the other side is going to resist, delay and oppose.
Definitive budgets and fixed fees are going be hard to establish in litigation when, unlike the other businesses and professions you are probably referring to, there's another party trying to undo whatever it is your trying to do with equal and sometimes greater vigor, and there's no way of knowing going into the matter how it's going to play out.
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The legal profession is increasingly using alternative billing methods. Depending on what you need assistance with, you could find an attorney who would be willing to charge a flat fee. Do not be afraid to shop around.
I haven't experimented with it yet, but there's an Iphone and Ipad application called Ratedriver that can help you determine what a reasonable rate for a given legal task.
Also, carefully read the retainer. Do not be afraid to ask questions about its terms. If you are unhappy with a provision, say so.
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Assume that you were the attorney. How would you bill for a court appearance at 9:00 a.m. on Monday where the court may call your case first and keep you for 20 minutes or, just as likely, will call your case last (two and a half hours after the time for the appearance) and keep you for an hour, and then task you with three documents to prepare in a very short deadline that should not be necessary at all? And there is NOTHING that you can do in advance to control the time or even to know it in advance. Assume that the range for the attorney's charges is between a half hour (short appearance) and 6 hours (long appearance plus time for the three unexpected documents). What is "right" and "professional" and "responsible" in this situation? Just asking.
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Long story short, almost all professions allow wiggle room for unforseeable changes. In the legal profession one never knows how hard the other side will fight or what tactics they will take or what a judge may say or do, which will then cause a lot more work to be done, so, as not to lock oneself in to a position where one is working for nothing, one can only give one's best estimate and that is all.....
Sometimes, if I know the task, I can give an estimate of time and agree in writing that I will do the task for a flat rate of X dollars or I will bill at X dollars per hour and cap my cost at "X" dollars.
Fee agreements are negotiable. Attorneys are more willing to negotiate if you pay a fee deposit up front.
Just because you had a bad experience does not mean you can paint all attorneys with an ugly brush, especially lawyers like us on the AVVO community who always stay under budget on AVVO becuase we give valuable advice FOR FREE.
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