Fee Agreements and Disputes
A common complaint from the clients of attorneys is that they never know what to expect when they receive a bill for legal services. The bills may seem unreasonably high or difficult to decipher. Most of these clients aren't sure of their options when they disagree with the billing process. If you feel that you have a valid dispute over legal fees, consult with a lawyer to explore your remedies.
Lawyers are not allowed to charge unreasonable fees, but there is no specific dollar limit on what they may charge. The measures for reasonableness include the time it takes the lawyer to perform the job; the skill required; the fees that other local lawyers charge; the lawyer's experience; whether the task prevented the lawyer from doing work for other clients; and the amount of money at issue in the case.
What Does a Fee Agreement Cover?
When a client makes a fee agreement with an attorney, the agreement can take several forms. The attorney should explain how the fee structure works and what to anticipate.
Different types of cases usually have different types of fee arrangements:
Personal injury cases: Most attorneys representing injured clients charge a contingent fee. A contingent fee means that the amount the attorney is paid is taken out of the amount the client receives from a settlement or trial. The attorney, for instance, may earn 33% of the jury's award to the client. This may seem like a lot, but it also means that if the client is awarded nothing, the lawyer gets no attorney's fees. Keep in mind, though, that there may be other fees associated with the case (like fees for filing court documents). The contingent fee agreement should be in writing.
Criminal defense cases: In criminal cases, contingent fees that are based on the outcome (a guilty or not guilty verdict, for example) are not allowed. A flat fee is usually charged, based on the amount of time and energy the attorney anticipates the case will require. Although contingent fees are not allowed, fees based on how far the case goes through the court system are allowed.
Civil cases: The fees in these cases are typically contingent or hourly, depending on numerous factors like the amount of money at stake and the specifics of the case.
Divorce cases: Contingent fees based on the amount of alimony a client wins are not allowed. Hourly fees or flat fees are charged in divorce cases.
Retainers: A retainer is a lump sum of money the client pays a lawyer before the start of legal services. There are two types of retainers. The first is an advance payment for work the lawyer will do for the client. If the lawyer does not do all the work that was anticipated, the lawyer must return the balance of the retainer to the client. The second type of retainer is a fee to ensure the lawyer's availability to the client. This kind of retainer is earned as soon as the client pays and the attorney agrees to be available. It is important to clarify exactly what "retainer" means in your particular fee agreement.
When you and your lawyer talk about fees at your initial meeting, make sure to discuss:
If you think that your lawyer's bill contains inaccuracies or charges that you did not agree to, you have several options. First, call the lawyer and discuss the problem. It could have been a simple error or a misunderstanding. If this does not solve the problem, you may be able to take advantage of your local or state bar association's arbitration program to reach an out-of-court agreement. Finally, you may wish to hire another lawyer to pursue legal action against the first lawyer.
Rarely, lawyers who should take their fee from the client's award or settlement and forward the rest to the client fail to do so. If you cannot get money that is rightfully yours, the aforementioned steps are relevant. Some states also have set up a fund for cases like this, when legal action against the lawyer does not produce the money the client is owed. The fund may partially reimburse the client for stolen money.
Contact an Attorney
Speak with an attorney if you need help with a dispute over legal fees.
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