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How to Negotiate With Lawyers and Doctors

Consumers have considerable bargaining power when shopping for lawyers and doctors. The critical issues are the complexity of the legal matter and the heath of the consumer.

Legal Transactions

Most everyday legal transactions-wills, real estate closings, contracts, traffic tickets, bankruptcies, probating of estates, uncontested divorces, incorporations-are (from the lawyer’s perspective) simple. Almost any competent general practitioner can handle these matters. In fact, such work is so routine that many lawyers flat-rate it, charging, for example $500 for a standard real estate settlement or a will. Comparison-shop a few layers (the initial consultation should be free) and buy strictly on price. Further concessions may be won with the suggestion of an ongoing relationship. The lawyer knows that a startup business or a new family may provide a growing, increasingly profitable stream of future legal work.

For legal issues of moderate difficulty-child custody, contested divorces, drunk driving and other criminal cases, personal injury matters, and commercial cases-use this two-step process:

First, call and visit a number of lawyers and do a “rough cut” on the basis of competency, rapport, and price. For this initial step, keep in mind that bigger firms, downtown firms, and firms with fancy offices charge the most and negotiate the least.

Second, sit down with one or two finalists and talk with them. Negotiate subtly. Present the lawyer with a problem: “I want you, you’re the greatest, you’re worth every penny you charge and more. But I’m just a poor individual with a family to feed. Will you help me get justice?” Always ask the lawyer to take the case “on contingency.” If she will, there won’t be a charge until the case is won. Expect to give the lawyer a third or more of the proceeds in this case. Accident cases are customarily handled this way, and contingent-fee arrangements are not unheard-of in other others. They are not permitted in criminal cases, however, if a case is unique or newsworthy, there will be some extra leverage. Also, be aware that lawyers can’t help reckoning the affluence of their clients, and may, consciously or unconsciously, reflect that assessment in their billings. So dress modestly.

If the case is a serious one, or there’s a great deal of money at stake, or the issue is very sophisticated (a complex trust, securities, estate, or tax matter, or an intellectual-property question) this isn’t the time to economize. Get a specialist, the very best that can be found. A real star has the tremendous advantage of being known and respected by the key players in the system. And an expert will have a far shorter learning curve than a generalist, so they won’t have to get up to speed on the matter.

Always keep the lawyer on a short leash. For anything more than a small, fixed-fee matter, agree on a detailed budget at the outset. Insist on itemized, monthly billing thereafter. Regularly compare budgeted numbers to actuals. Require weekly or semiweekly telephone status reports. Make it clear that costs are being closely monitored. Close (but not offensive) oversight will help prevent misunderstandings and keep legal expenses down.

How to Negotiate With Doctors

Medical and dental fees are more negotiable than ever. Nevertheless, doctors are easily affronted by direct haggling; grace and decorum are essential.

If the procedure is covered by medical insurance, negotiating is relatively straightforward. Ask the insurance company how much it will pay for the procedure. If it’s less than the doctor is charging, tell him. Doctors are often willing to reduce their fee to the amount the patient’s insurer will cover.

If the procedure isn’t covered by insurance, some shopping and then some haggling are in order. Get at least three opinions. Shop not just for price, but also experience, disposition, and therapeutic strategy. Negotiate-diplomatically-with the top one or two candidates. Remember that like lawyers, doctors inevitably take the measure of their patients and adjust their charges accordingly. Remember that likable patients tend to be charged less than difficult ones, and for future reference, long-standing patients pay less than new ones. Always negotiate directly with the doctor, not the no-authority receptionist/office manager. Even if the fee can’t be lowered, extended-payment arrangements can sometimes be worked out. Some doctors will even barter medical work in exchange for goods or services.