Fee Agreements

The rules treat various types of fee agreements differently.  I thought I’d run through them.

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Hourly Fee

The rule: Rule 1.5(b).

An agreement to charge an hourly fee need not be in writing.  That being said, I can’t imagine NOT putting the agreement in writing.  As I’ve blogged, a well-written fee agreement provides a perfect opportunity to avoid complaints by setting reasonable expectations.  The Oregon State Bar has also written on the importance of managing client expectations.

While there’s no requirement to reduce an hourly fee agreement to writing, a lawyer must communicate to the client the scope of the representation and the basis or rate of the fee within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.  Per the rule, it’s preferable that the communication be in writing.

Contingent Fee

The rule: Rule 1.5(c).

A contingent fee MUST:

  • be in a writing that is signed by the client;
  • state the method by which the fee is to be determined, including the percentage that the lawyer will take if the case resolves by settlement, trial or appeal;
  • notify the client of the expenses for which the client will be responsible, including expenses for which the client will be responsible even if the client does not prevail;
  • specify the litigation & other expenses that will deducted from any recovery; and,
  • state whether those expenses will be deducted before or after the contingent fee is calculated.

In Vermont, the failure to reduce a contingent fee in writing has resulted in lawyers being reprimanded and admonished.

Discipline aside, as we learned from Captain Jack Sparrow, the lack of a written contingent fee agreement might cost a lawyer a heckuva lot of coin.

Fee Divided Among Lawyers in Different Firms

The rule:  Rule 1.5(e).

Vermont does not allow straight referral fees. I’ve written on that here, here, and here.

If lawyers in different firms want to share any portion of a fee:

  • the division must be in proportion to the services performed by each, or, both must assume joint responsibility for the representation;
  • the client must agree to the arrangement, including the share that each lawyer will receive;
  • the agreement must be confirmed in writing; and
  • the total fee must be reasonable.

Advance Fees that are Earned upon Receipt

The rules: 1.5(f), 1.5(g), 1.15(c).

My post on the distinction between advance fees that must remain in trust and fees that may be considered earned upon receipt is here.

When a fee is paid in advance, a lawyer may treat it as earned, even though no work has yet to be performed, only if:

  • before or within a reasonable time after the representation begins, a lawyer confirms to the client in writing:
    • the scope of availability & services that the client will receive; and,
    • that the fee is not refundable.

FINAL POINT

The rule: Rule 1.5(a).

No matter the type of fee, it must be reasonable.

 

 

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Monday Morning Answers – #129

Happy Labor Day!

Is it hot & humid?  Yes!  But, you have a choice how you respond to the weather.  One choice is to bemoan it & sit on the couch all day.  Another is to smile at the thought of one more day to wear shorts, flip-flops, and to be outdoors!  Maybe even by the grill with a cold beverage . . . on a Monday!

I choose the latter.

Friday’s questions are here.  The answers follow the honor roll.  Also, you’ll recall that I asked readers to share the events seared into their memories.  I did so in the context of Friday being the anniversary of Princess Diana’s passing.  As always with my readers, the response was fantastic and significantly outnumbered entries into the quiz.

The most-cited events were to be expected:

  • 9/11
  • the space shuttle Challenger tragedy

A few others mentioned by at least 3 people:

  • JFK assassination
  • Sandy Hook
  • MLK assassination
  • the moon landing
  • Princess Diana
  • Boston Marathon bombings
  • Barack Obama elected

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly given the frequent musical references on this blog, many of you will never forget where you were & what you were doing when you learned that a musician died.  Among the musicians whose deaths were mentioned more than once:

  • Kurt Cobain
  • Jerry Garcia
  • John Lennon
  • Jim Morrison
  • Elvis Presley
  • Prince
  • Tupac Shakur

Anyhow, thank you again for sharing. I love your stories.  Alas, to make the honor roll, you’ve got to answer the questions!

Honor Roll

(responses had to include quiz answers to make the honor roll)

Answers

Question 1

Lawyer called me with an inquiry.  My response included the following words and phrases:  “knowledge,” “violation,”  “substantial question,”  and “honesty, trustworthiness, fitness.”

What did Lawyer call to discuss?

  • A.  Informing a court that a client had testified falsely in a civil matter.
  • B.  Informing a court that a criminal defense client had testified falsely.
  • C.  Reporting another lawyer’s misconduct.  See, Rule 8.3(a).
  • D.  Whether reciprocal discipline would be imposed in Vermont as a result of Lawyer being sanctioned in another state.

Question 2

The conflicts rules are NOT relaxed for:

  • A.  Lawyers who transfer from one private firm to another.
  • B.  Lawyers who move from government practice to private practice.
  • C.  Lawyers who provide short-term pro bono services under the auspices of a program sponsored by a nonprofit or court.
  • D.  All of the above.

Vermont’s rules do not allow for the automatic screening of lateral transfers.  I’ve blogged on that issue here & here.  Later this month, the PRB will consider a rule change that I’ve recommended that would allow a new firm to screen a lateral transfer from another firm.

Our rules allow for screening when a lawyer moves from government practice to private practice.  In addition, Rule 6.5 relaxes the conflicts rules for lawyers who provide short-term pro bono services under the auspices of a program sponsored by a nonprofit or court.

Question 3

You’re at a CLE.   You hear me say:  “yes, it’s okay as long as  (1) your client gives informed consent; (2) there is no interference with the lawyer’s independence of professional judgment or with the client-lawyer relationship; and (3) information relating to the representation of your client is protected as required by Rule 1.6.”

What did someone ask if it was okay to do?

  • A.  Accept compensation for representing a client from someone other than the client.  See, Rule 1.8(f).
  • B.  Request that guardian be appointed for the client.
  • C.  Represent co-defendants in a criminal matter.
  • D.  Talk to the media in a client’s case.

Question 4

Client provides Lawyer with an advance payment of $2,000.  Lawyer has yet to do any work for Client.

Which is most accurate?

  • A.  The fee agreement must be confirmed in writing.
  • B.  The fee agreement must be confirmed in a writing that is signed by Client.
  • C.  The $2,000 must go into Lawyer’s pooled interest-bearing trust account (“IOLTA”).
  • D.  Lawyer may treat the money as Lawyer’s own if Lawyer confirms in writing (i) that the fee is not refundable; and (ii) the scope of availability or services that Client will receive.    See, Rule 1.5(f) & (g).

Here, A & B are not correct.  The rules do not require standard fee agreements to be reduced to writing.  That being said, I think it’s a bad idea not to.

C is not correct. There’s not enough information in the question to know.  For instance, if the lawyer has complied with Rule 1.5(f) and (g), then the money cannot go into trust.

Many lawyers charge “flat fees” that are “earned upon receipt” and treat the funds as their own upon receipt.  This is ok ONLY IF THE LAWYER COMPLIES WITH RULE 1.5(f) and RULE 1.5(g).  Otherwise, the money must go in trust until earned.

Question 5

Speaking of the JFK assassination . .  .

. . . Jules Mayer was a lawyer in Dallas.  In 1950, Mayer drew up a will for a client.  The will named Mayer as the executor the client’s estate.

The client died in 1967.  A dispute quickly arose, as the client’s family contended that the client had changed his will on his deathbed to remove Mayer as executor.  Mayer refused to make the change and kept the original will.

In 1991, after a lengthy legal battle, a probate court granted the family’s petition to remove Mayer as executor after concluding that he had mismanaged the estate.

Central to the dispute was gun associated with the JFK assassination.  Mayer’s client bought the gun for $62.50.   After winning their legal battle with Mayer, the client’s family sold the gun for $220,000.  Fortunately for the family, Mayer had safeguarded the gun, holding it in trust for 24 years.

Two-part question:

  1. Who was Mayer’s famous client?
  2. Who was the famous victim of the client’s gun?

Mayer’s client was Jack Ruby.  The gun was used on Lee Harvey Oswald.  A story of the gun is in this article in the Las Vegas Sun.

See the source image