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When You Want To Cancel Your AT&T Contract But You Don't Want To Hire a Lawyer—Or You Can't Afford To

Here are your options (you've probably never heard of the third one).

· Attorney,Contract Management,Cell Phone,ATT

Cancelling an AT&T contract without a lawyer is relatively easy.

AT&T is not one of those companies that will fight you about cancelling your contract early. But that's because each of their contracts includes some form of an early termination fee.

Sure, you might have to call AT&T customer service, be transferred to someone in the "retention department," and then spend 15 annoying minutes repeating yourself to the retention agent that your wish is simply to cancel (his job is to convince you to not cancel, and then to actually up-sell you in the same phone call). But there will be no argument about whether you have the right to cancel. The only question, therefore, will be how much you have to pay AT&T on your way out the door.

So, when people ask how to get out of an AT&T contract early, what they're really asking is...

"But how do I get out of an AT&T contract without having to pay an early termination fee?"

Let's start by listing your options in simple bullet points. At a very high level, when you want to cancel your AT&T contract early--and avoid paying an early termination fee--you basically have three options:

  1. DIY - you could handle the case yourself.
     
  2. Lawyer - you could hire a lawyer, ideally one with experience in areas such as consumer protection and contract disputes.
     
  3. Purchase Experience Assistant - you could hire a service like CellBreaker (or Veeto) that specializes in managing people's vendor relationships and, when necessary, doing the specific legal work required to cancel a service contract early with no termination fee.

The first two are pretty self-explanatory. So I will briefly expound on those first two and then shift focus to the third option, because you might not even be familiar with purchase experience assistance services like Cellbreaker and Veeto.

Most expensive: the lawyer option.

The attractive thing about the lawyer option is that, for your money, you are getting someone who spent a few years in law school, maybe even a few years thereafter actually practicing law, and maybe even someone with relevant experience to your AT&T contract case. Lawyers know how the law works generally, and, depending on the area of law they practice in, they might also have experience resolving legal problems and disputes. There are two challenges with the lawyer option, however, and they both trace back to the element of economics.

First, lawyers charge a lot of money--maybe $200-$300/hour on average, plus, often an upfront retainer of $1,000 or more. At those prices, it's easy to see that the total stakes of your AT&T case might not justify that level of expense. For example, let's say that your AT&T early termination fee would be around $1,500 if you were not able to get out of it. Would you feel good about spending $1,000 on a lawyer's retainer fee--upfront, and with no guarantee that you will actually win your AT&T case? Probably not. And honestly, most ethical attorneys would advise you against that bet also. This is why there are very few attorneys in the world who specialize in getting our of AT&T contracts, or even cell phone or internet contracts more generally. Because the economics of those types of cases seldom justify the prices the attorney must charge (because, remember, after several years of law school, there might be $100,000+ of student loans to pay off before the lawyer begins to break even), there are not many attorneys who take those types of cases.

And that actually results in the second challenge, which is that there are very few attorneys in the world with specific experience that is relevant to your AT&T case. It's one big causal chain that begins with the element of economics:

  • What are the stakes (in dollars) of your AT&T case?
     
  • What is the price an attorney would charge you to handle your AT&T case?
     
  • Comparing the first number with the second, is that a bet you would like to make?
     
  • If no, then the causal chain perpetuates and continues to lead to the same conclusion the next time you (or someone else) face this kind of case--even if it is not an AT&T case specifically.

So, in summary, the lawyer option is probably not a good one for you unless your case stakes were unusually high--say, at least $4,000--or you just happen to find a lawyer who will handle your case for a fixed, upfront fee of no more than a few hundred dollars. Ironically, the lawyers most likely to enter such an arrangement would likely be the least qualified to handle your case in terms of experience; maybe an unemployed lawyer fresh out of law school would do this, but it is unlikely that a quality, currently-employed attorney would. You don't have to take my word for it, either. Ask someone with credentials. 👇

Here is a real-life example of this: Kevin (disgruntled AT&T customer) asked Sarah (attorney) about his options for winning a breach of contract case against AT&T...

sue att small claims

Sarah Condor (pictured on the cover of her book above) is a former Olympian and who is today an attorney in the Los Angeles area (oh yeah, she also has a Ph.D.). So she has some credentials. When asked about the prudence of suing AT&T in small claims court over a breach of contract, this is what she advised:

Don't bother. It will cost you more in hassle, time, and filing costs than you will ever get out of it. Even if the court concludes in your favor, you will never be able to collect the money, and the sum is too small to hire a lawyer.

The details of the case she was asked about were pretty straightforward. You know all of those too-good-to-be-true credits all of the big cell phone carriers seem to be advertising these days, the ones wherein you can supposedly get several hundred dollars to "buy out your existing contract" when you switch to a new carrier, or just for adding a new line to your cell phone account? Well, as you might imagine, they are, in fact, often too good to be true.

  • Kevin in California added two new lines to his account when AT&T promised to give him a cash incentive for doing so.
     
  • The incentive was supposed to be $200 per new line that he added, which totaled $400 for Kevin's two new lines.
     
  • Because this entire conversation took place via AT&T's live chat widget on their website, both AT&T and Kevin had a complete written record of everything that Kevin was promised.
     
  • Long story short, Kevin added the two lines, began paying the increased monthly fees for them, but then AT&T reneged on the promised incentive.
     
  • Because of the written evidence, AT&T did not try to deny that Kevin was promised the $400 incentive. Instead, they simply said that they later determined that his account was suddenly not eligible for the incentive he was promised, the exact same account the AT&T live chat agent was no doubt looking at while he/she was chatting with Kevin.

Kevin has clear strong evidence of a clear promise and subsequent breach of contract. Seems like a pretty clear-cut case, right?

Well, when Kevin asked whether he could/should hire an attorney and sue AT&T, Sarah, as an attorney weighing on his case, in essence advised Kevin against doing so on economic grounds. So what Kevin needs is a way to change the economics in his favor, and to do this, he needs to focus on the cost side of the equation--lest he, as Sarah advises, opt to just walk away from the claim, leave his money on the table, and let AT&T get away with breaking their promise to him.

Least expensive: the DIY option.

The attractive thing about handling the case yourself is that you don't have to pay money to a third-party to help. So in that sense, this option is super cheap--maybe even free. The downside of the DIY option, though, is that you are paying with your time instead of your money. If you are handling the case yourself, then you are doing all of the work. But note, there are three parts of the cost-benefit analysis, and it is only the combination of these parts that can help you determine, as quantitatively as possible, the best option for your case:

  1. How much money will this cost me?
     
  2. How much time will this cost me?
     
  3. How likely am I to win my case?

If you are hiring someone who knows what they are doing, you will have a higher confidence that you will win your case. In contrast, if you are handling your case yourself, and you have no prior, relevant experience, then your probability of winning is likely to be lower--not zero, necessarily, but lower compared to delegating it to someone who has the right kind of expertise and experience.

Honestly, I am a huge advocate of the DIY option. If more people stood up for themselves more often, then in a very concrete way, the world would be a better place. Why? Because unscrupulous companies would be less likely to exploit people. Why is that? Because their cost-benefit analysis, preceding a decision to either exploit people or not, would feature the consideration that many people are likely to stand up for themselves if wronged in some way. This would deter companies from behaving badly.

In contrast, the way the world actually works today is that companies have gotten quite comfortable behaving badly and then getting away with it, because there are too few DIYers out there. Companies know this is not just a deficiency of willpower: it's more largely a function of economics, the same caveat we saw in the lawyer option, only this time, the economic cost is mostly paid in time, your time.

at&t lawsuit for overcharging

**Some background on this article: there are a handful of "justice as service" companies like CellBreaker and Veeto, and there are "access to justice" organizations like the Stanford Legal Design Lab, who all recognize that web-based software and hyper-specialization is a way to help people solve mundane but costly legal problems that the "traditional law firm" has never been able to afford to solve--such as terminating your AT&T contract. This article, which you would never find on the website of a traditional law firm, is Exhibit A.

The way that most people do this mental calculus is this...

A) They start with the total stakes of the case--how much will I gain (or avoid having to pay) if I win the case, or how much will it cost me if I lose the case? That usually equates to some neat number, because, for example, AT&T in this case will tell you exactly how much they think you would have to pay if you were to cancel your contract today. This number might be itemized to include multiple components, such as basic early termination fees, device fees, or an outstanding balance on some sort of long-term lease, but it will ultimately add up to a single number. Those are the stakes of your AT&T case.

B) Then, they might compare the dollar-cost of hiring someone to help versus the time-cost required to do all of the work DIY. Part of this arithmetic might also entail doing some research (perhaps the kind that brought you here to this article!) on all of the steps and activities you would need to do if you were to handle the case on your own, especially if you have no relevant, prior experience.

I am also going let you in on a little secret about lawyers who do not narrowly specialize in a certain type of law: when you hire them, they begin by doing this very same research ("what are the steps and activities required here?"), but the trick is that they bill you for this time. This is why, when you hire someone who has specific, relevant experience, you might end up spending less on their fees in total even if their hourly rates are higher, because you don't to pay those people to first educate themselves.

You ideally would be able to distill this estimate down to a single unit such as the dollar. So if you have estimated your time, you could assign yourself a time value in dollars so that on one hand, you begin with a clear statement of how much your time is worth to you, and that, on the other hand, you are also able to make oranges-to-oranges comparisons to the dollar-cost you estimated for any DIY alternative.

C) Finally, you can calculate the estimated, relative ROI for each option. Your equation for this will look something like this: [stakes of your case]/[cost to you] = simple ROI. But you should not base your decision solely on simple ROI. Instead, you should use the same device that lawyer's use to evaluate the expected value of a case based on estimated probabilities, and in your case, you should think of it as more a way to calculate ​expected ROI. This an example of how attorneys use the expected value equation: figure out the possible "conclusions" of a legal case, assign a comparative probability to each possible conclusion, and then estimate a dollar value of any version of a win. Here is a back-of-napkin example:

att lawyer

Then solve the equation for each "win version" by carrying each stage of probability through, like this:

at&t complaint department

The way to apply this same kind of analysis to your AT&T case is to multiple your estimated probability of winning by the value of a win. If it's a case with $1,000 at stake, and you think you have 50% chance of winning, then an option that costs you $500 would be break-even in your cost benefit analysis, while an option that cost you $100--in either time or money spent--would be an expected 5x ROI.

I personally think that a 5x ROI is worthwhile. So let's say you wanted to figure out whether the DIY option would in fact yield a 5x ROI. You would start from $100 as your cost budget, determine the hourly value/cost of your time, and then multiply that cost by the estimated time you think it would take you to handle your case. If your time is worth $20/hour, then you could afford to spend 5 hours on the case before you begin to degrade your expected 5x ROI.

Weirdest: the purchase experience assistant option.

In short, the purchase experience option is when you delegate your AT&T contract case to a third-party who is not playing the role of traditional law firm or attorney. I will explain this further in a minute, but for now, I will summarize the distinction between the attorney option and the purchase experience assistant option as this:

  1. Purchase experience assistants actually have more relevant experience handling AT&T contract cases than attorneys.
     
  2. But because the purchase experience assistant model is totally different that the traditional law firm model, purchase experience assistants actually cost far less than hiring an attorney.
     
  3. Yet, despite the lower cost, purchase experience assistants are more commonly used by wealthy people and busy executives.

More hyper-specific experience, for a lower price...I know that must sound suspiciously appealing. So let me give you some background on the purchase experience assistant industry for context. (You can also read more here about why purchase experience assistants are a thing.)

The term "purchase experience assistant" is probably one of those terrible made-up terms that is bound to be replaced sometime in the future by something more pithy. But for now, we use what we have. It refers to a large class of third-party services that help you manage some, or all, of your vendors and services after you make a purchase.

🤔 If you're curious...
There are fundamentally two parts to a purchase experience assistance service: the platform and the business model. The platform concepts have been around since at least 2006, and you can find a list of some of those platforms on the ProjectVRM site hosted by the Berkman Klein Center and Harvard. The tougher part has always been combining the platform with a business model, and Veeto is the first provider to combine both in a way that solves the challenge of managing all purchase experiences--including the teeny-tiny stuff that most providers cannot afford to touch and you don't want to touch, and the big, hairy, legal stuff that most people cannot afford to delegate to attorneys and you don't know how to handle yourself.

Any question, customer service issue, or larger legal problem is something your purchase experience assistant would handle for you. In some cases, the benefit is time-savings: you could spend 30 minutes on the phone with customer service trying to fix an issue, but you prefer to delegate that to your dedicated purchase experience assistant instead. In other cases, the benefit is that your problem gets solved at all, because you don't have the time, money, or experience to solve it on your own: you need to get out of your AT&T contract, but you can't justify hiring an attorney, and your purchase experience assistant has more experience solving that type of problem anyway.

Some people use their purchase experience assistant service only on-demand, in special cases--such as early AT&T contract termination. But most people just use their purchase experience assistant 24/7, so that literally all of the tasks and responsibilities that follow a purchase get handled right away by someone with lots of experience. If you have never used a purchase experience assistant service, here are some examples of activities that your purchase experience assistant will tend to do after almost every single contract purchase you make--note that you probably either do none of these currently, or only some.

Because purchase experience assistants basically live in your dedicated purchase experience inbox, they have a wide range of experience with precisely the kinds of "low-stakes" cases that you don't know how to handle, and that attorneys won't touch. Plus, by managing each of those vendors and services proactively, the bigger, harrier legal issues tend to be squashed earlier on, because they are caught and resolved well before they snowball into something big.

Businesses who use purchase experience assistants might refer to this job as "vendor manager," while people who use purchase experience assistants to it as "personal assistant." But my view is that, while purchase experience assistants are definitely similar to vendor managers and personal assistants, purchase experience assistants are unique in that they only focus on doing things that follow from a purchase and they have a kind of specialized legal experience that generalists don't have--and this is what equips purchase experience assistants to help people terminate AT&T contracts early, for example, with no penalties.

If you don't have those skills yourself, or if you have better uses for your time, then maybe your AT&T contract case is a good opportunity to test-drive the concept of a purchase experience assistant. However, winning your AT&T case won’t solve the flaw that led to the expensive legal problem in the first place: you need someone actively monitoring your purchased services, your attendant rights, and squashing small problems before they become big problems that waste your time reading long articles like this one ;)

In the long-run, purchase experience assistance isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have. It's the only efficient way to ensure that you (a) get your money's worth, (b) preserve your legal rights, and (c) protect your time.

Our Purchase Experience Assistance clients use Veeto as their total vendor management solution: we handle all aspects of managing the products, services, and purchase experiences that follow from a purchase; and not only will we do the things that most people will not take the time to do, but have over a decade of experience making sure they are done correctly. You can see for yourself by clicking the button below.

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