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Category: Ethics & Professional Responsibility

Five Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses

April 4, 2017

A recent The Recorder article by Randy Evans and Shari Klevens, “5 Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses,” address ADR clauses in fee agreements.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys and law firms have been experimenting with strategies to collect unpaid client fees while limiting the risk of malpractice claims.  One approach that is gaining traction involves the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) provisions, including mandatory arbitration clauses, in retainer agreements and engagement letters to address the status of unpaid fees.

ADR has several advantages over litigation.  Most obviously, arbitration or mediation of a fee dispute is often less expensive than litigation.  Additionally, arbitration and mediation proceedings are confidential and do not become matters of public record.  Thus, a client’s assertion of a malpractice counterclaim in an ADR proceeding as justification for his or her failure to pay the fees at issue may stay out of the public realm.  Attorneys should be aware, however, that their professional malpractice insurance will likely require them to report such a potential claim as a condition of coverage (regardless of whether it is confidential).

The American Bar Association (ABA) has provided ethical guidance when using mandatory arbitration clauses in retainer agreements.  In a 2002 Formal Opinion, the ABA advised: “It is ethically permissible to include in a retainer agreement with a client a provision that requires the binding arbitration of fee disputes and malpractice claims provided that (1) the client has been fully apprised of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has been given sufficient information to permit her to make an informed decision about whether to agree to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement, and (2) the arbitration provision does not insulate the lawyer from liability or limit the liability to which she would otherwise be exposed under common and/or statutory law.”

California attorneys and clients may enter into valid and enforceable agreements requiring binding arbitration of both legal malpractice and fee dispute claims at the initiation of their relationship.  Powers v. Dickson, Carlson & Campillo, 54 Cal.App.4th 1102 (1997).  But these agreements do not extinguish a client’s right to nonbinding mandatory fee arbitration (MFA) under Business & Professions Code §6200.  Benjamin, Weill & Mazer v. Kors, 195 Cal.App.4th 40, 53 (2011).  MFA arbitration is mandatory for the lawyer if the client requests arbitration.

Here are five things to keep in mind when including or enforcing an ADR provision in a fee agreement.

Use a proven arbitration clause

There is no need to reinvent the wheel or to take risk testing the general enforceability of an arbitration provision.  The safer option is to use a boilerplate provision or judicially tested language for a binding arbitration clause.  In addition, in the event the attorney-client agreement is treated like other commercial transactions, a generally accepted and commercially enforceable arbitration clause will be a significant asset.

Include the bar association disclosure

Although generally not controlling, ABA Formal Opinion 02-425 certainly is persuasive precedent regarding how a client can be apprised of the significance of the terms of the agreement.  Specifically, in California, an attorney must serve, either personally or by first class mail to the client, the California State Bar’s “Notice of Client’s Right to Arbitrate” form prior to or at the time of serving a summons or claim in an action or other proceeding against the client for recovery of fees that are subject to mandatory arbitration.  If an attorney fails to give the notice, the failure is a ground for dismissal of the action. Bus. & Prof. Code §6201(a).

Most attorneys dealing with this issue, therefore, will ensure that the client has been apprised fully and in writing of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has been given sufficient information to permit an informed decision about whether to agree to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the agreement.

Advise client of right to independent counsel

California attorneys are required to advise the client of the right to seek independent counsel when there is a malpractice claim and the attorney is seeking to settle the claim with the client.  Specifically, California Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 3-400 provides that a lawyer shall not “settle a claim or potential claim for the member’s liability to the client for the member’s professional malpractice, unless the client is informed in writing that the client may seek the advice of an independent lawyer of the client’s choice regarding the settlement and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek that advice.”

Separate fee disputes from other disputes

The ABA Formal Opinion raises serious questions regarding the enforceability of a mandatory arbitration provision that limits the attorney’s substantive liability.  Rather than risk both binding arbitration for fee disputes and binding arbitration of claims arising out of the representation by combining them, some firms will segregate the two into separate mandatory arbitration provisions.

By doing this, attorneys and law firms can save one, even if the other is lost.  In California, a properly worded provision requiring binding arbitration of legal malpractice claims is not ethically improper, and these provisions are generally enforceable.  See Powers v. Dickson, Carlson & Campillo, 54 Cal. 4th 1102 (1997).  The attorneys just must take care not to prospectively contract with their client in a way that limits the attorneys’ liability to the client for malpractice. Rule 3-400.

Include a severability clause

Like any successful contractual arrangement, a valid and enforceable retainer agreement or fee contract containing a mandatory arbitration clause also typically includes a severability clause.  That way, if a particular state or jurisdiction finds the binding arbitration agreement unenforceable, other protections in the agreement still may remain in effect.

By considering these issues, attorneys can take steps to reach an agreement with their clients that helps protect both sides and reflects the requirements of the bar rules.

Randy Evans is a partner and Shari Klevens is a partner and deputy general counsel at Dentons, which has six offices throughout California.  The authors represent attorneys and law firms and regularly speak and write on issues regarding the practice of law, including “The Lawyer’s Handbook: Ethics Compliance and Claim Avoidance” (ALM 2013) and “California Legal Malpractice Law” (ALM 2014).

Five Fundamentals of Collecting Attorney Fees

April 3, 2017

A recent Daily Report article by Randy Evans and Shari Klevens, “5 Fundamentals of Collecting Fees,” addresses attorney fee collection.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

It pays to implement an effective billing system—literally.  On the front end, having a system in place increases realization rates because it gets money in the door.  On the back end, fee disputes and related malpractice claims can be minimized, if not avoided altogether.  Knowing the fundamentals of billing and collections can make the world of difference for any law practice from both a financial and risk management perspective.  Here are five steps worth considering when implementing or revising your billing and collections processes.

Determine Fee Arrangement Before Attorney-Client Relationship Begins

Subject to market conditions and the simple economics of supply and demand, lawyers typically enjoy the ability to negotiate fees with a prospective client.  The best way to minimize problems down the road is to finalize the negotiations before the attorney-client relationship commences.  In negotiating a fee arrangement, the most significant requirement under the ethical rules is that the fee must be reasonable.  In addition, fee agreements cannot penalize a client who decides to terminate an attorney at any time.  (Notably, requiring a client to pay an attorney for the time spent on the representation prior to termination is generally not an unreasonable term.)

If the fee arrangement is not finalized until after the representation begins, the attorney and client may already be in a fiduciary relationship at that point.  Attorneys have to take care not to use information learned in the course of the attorney-client relationship to the attorney's advantage and to the client's detriment in negotiating the fee.  If a client challenges the fee later, courts and bars will look to whether the attorney took advantage of the client's need for continued representation.

That is not to say that mid-representation fee changes are impermissible.  In fact, they happen frequently, such as when an attorney's hourly rate changes due to market conditions.  This is fairly routine.  For a major fee change mid-representation, however, the attorney could recommend that the client consult with independent legal counsel regarding the amended fee arrangement.  Attorneys who advise clients on new fee arrangements during the representation that seriously alter the previous terms may be subject to heightened scrutiny.

Set Expectations

If the attorney or law practice expects to get paid on a monthly or quarterly basis, that is something that can be discussed with the client at the outset of the representation.  Similarly, if the fees are expected to be paid directly from settlement proceeds or at closing, tell the client.

Avoiding surprises is the most important risk prevention technique.  When both attorney and client have set their respective expectations (and adjusted them as appropriate), then the attorney-client relationship begins and proceeds on the same page.

Memorialize the Fee Arrangement

There has been considerable commentary regarding the implications of a "fee agreement," particularly whether written agreements extend the statute of limitations for legal malpractice claims.  However, the risks of failing to document a fee arrangement far exceed the risks of an extended statute of limitations.

A great majority of fee disputes involve the amount of the fee itself.  The simplest and most effective method for avoiding this type of dispute is simply to agree in writing to the terms of the fee arrangement and to have the client sign the document confirming the fee arrangement.

Bill Regularly

Sending out bills on a regular basis helps show the client—in close to real time—what tasks are being completed and what charges are being incurred.  Then, if the client objects to the services or has a problem with the charges, such issues can be addressed quickly.  If the attorney is not sending bills on a regular basis, however, the client may later object to the fees (even if the client would have paid the same aggregate amounts if invoiced at regular intervals).

Most attorneys will recommend informing the client what the fees are or will be well in advance of the request for payment.  For the hourly fee attorney, this means sending out bills regularly so that the client gets a sense of what the fees and costs are.  What constitutes "regular" billing will obviously differ based on the circumstances of each representation.

If there is little activity while a motion or appeal is pending, then bills might not be sent for a few months.  On the other hand, if there is significant activity, then bills might be sent on a monthly basis.

For transactional representations, providing a pre-closing preview of the closing statement with the fees is helpful.  For contingency fees, pre-settlement previews of the amount of the fees is appropriate.  If the representation involves significant out-of-pocket expenses for which the client is responsible, consider interim bills.  The key is to make sure the client understands (and accepts) what the projected fees are before they are locked in by a closing or settlement to avoid a fee dispute.

Timely Address Unpaid Bills

Unpaid bills are problems waiting to happen.  The sooner those problems are identified and resolved, the better.  While many attorneys do a good job at documenting the fee and sending the bills, they may do a poor job on the follow-up.  Rather than leave the follow-up to chance, the better approach is to set an internal deadline for following-up on outstanding bills.  This contact enables the attorney to determine if the client has any issues with the bill or whether the failure to pay is a simple oversight or intended delay.

If there are concerns or issues about the bills, then the attorney should address them.  If nonpayment is an oversight, then the contact will serve as a friendly reminder.  If it is intended delay, then the attorney and client can discuss what the limitations are and how they might be addressed.

There is no magic time for following up.  Instead, it will depend on the contours of the relationship with the client.

For attorneys and law practices that follow the steps discussed above, fee collections can be a little less daunting.  For attorneys and law practices who do not, it is never too late to put the systems in place or revise existing ones.  Your balance sheet and law license will thank you.

Randolph Evans is a partner at Dentons US in Atlanta.  He handles complex litigation matters in state and federal courts for large companies and is a frequent lecturer and author on the subjects of insurance, professional liability and ethics.  Shari L. Klevens is a partner and deputy general counsel at Dentons US in Washington and Atlanta.  She is co-chair of the global insurance sector team, a member of the firm's leadership team and is active in its women's initiative.

Judge Highlights Excessive Billing in Sprint Litigation

March 15, 2017

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Joe Palazzolo and Sara Randazzo, “One Lawyer, 6,905 Hours Leads to $1.5 Million Bill in Sprint Suit,” reports that, Alexander Silow, a contract lawyer for a Pennsylvania plaintiffs’ firm, clocked 6,905 hours of work on a shareholder lawsuit against former executives and directors of Sprint Corp. related to its 2005 merger with Nextel.  Averaging about 13 hours a day, Mr. Silow reviewed 48,443 documents and alone accounted for $1.5 million, more than a quarter of the requested legal fees, according to court documents.

“Unbelievable!” is how Judge James Vano in Kansas described the billing records.  And he meant it.  “It seems that the vast amount of work performed on this case was illusory, perhaps done for the purpose of inflating billable hours,” Judge Vano, who sits in Olathe, Kan., wrote in a Nov. 22 opinion.

Courts often slash what they see as excessive billing in securities and other litigation, but rarely are they so scathing, legal experts said.  Judge Vano’s ruling might have gone unnoticed but for a recent disclosure about Mr. Silow by the law firm where he worked: He was disbarred in 1987 and practiced law illegally for decades.

The revelation, contained in a February letter to Judge Vano, could ​rupture​ a settlement in the Sprint case, and provide grist for corporate groups and others that have highlighted alleged abuses in the civil-justice system, fueling current momentum for legislative change.

A Republican bill passed by the House of Representatives would make it harder to file class actions, curtailing lawyer-driven litigation that provides little benefit to shareholders and consumers, its supporters say.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers and consumer-rights advocates say the legislation would reduce access to the courts and blunt litigation that has improved corporate governance and forced companies to pull unsafe drugs and faulty products from shelves.

Courts regularly bless multimillion-dollar fee awards in recognition of the risk plaintiffs’ firms take by fronting the costs for litigation.  But fee experts said bill-padding is pervasive in class actions and shareholder suits because billing records aren’t reviewed by clients and are scrutinized only when a judge needs to approve a settlement or award fees after trial.

William G. Ross, a law professor at Samford University in Alabama who has written two books on attorney billing, said his most recent survey of lawyers showed that two-thirds were personally aware of bill-padding and more than half admitted they sometimes performed work they otherwise wouldn’t have done had they been charging a flat fee.

Mr. Silow had been working as a contract attorney for at least eight years when staffing agency Abelson Legal Search placed him at the Weiser Law Firm PC in Berwyn, Pa., in 2008, according to a Feb. 3 letter from the firm to Judge Vano.  The law firm was contacted last month by a third party it declined to name and learned that no one with Mr. Silow’s name was listed in a state database of licensed lawyers, Robert B. Weiser, co-founder of the firm, said in the letter.

Mr. Weiser said Mr. Silow presented himself to the firm as Alexander J. Silow, but “was in actuality named Jeffrey M. Silow” and confessed he had been disbarred when the firm confronted him, the letter said.  The firm has since ended its relationship with Mr. Silow and alerted authorities, it said.

Pennsylvania’s attorney discipline office confirmed Mr. Silow was disbarred in 1987 but could provide no additional information.  Mr. Silow didn’t respond to emails and calls seeking comment.  Abelson Legal Search didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Weiser said in the letter that his firm stands by the accuracy of Mr. Silow’s billing records in the Sprint lawsuit, which alleged the company directors and officers concealed problems created by the merger with Nextel.  The company posted a nearly $30 billion loss as a result of the deal.

The lawsuit sought to claw back profits from former Sprint directors and officers, who it accused of incompetence and self-dealing.  But a settlement reached last year was more modest.  Sprint agreed to changes to its corporate governance and the composition of its board of directors.

Judge Vano approved the deal in his November ruling but slashed the proposed legal fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys from $4.25 million to $450,000.  “The focus appears to have been upon an easy, cheap settlement in the first instance,” Judge Vano wrote.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers—Mr. Weiser’s firm, Florida lawyers Alison Leffew and Bruce G. Murphy and the Kansas City firm Dollar Burns & Becker LC—have appealed Judge Vano’s ruling on the fees.  They argued the results of the settlement, rather than the hours billed, justified the amount sought.

In court documents, Mr. Weiser and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers representing a Sprint shareholder said Mr. Silow’s “extensive document review” enabled them to make “well-informed decisions.”

Michael Hartleib, a Sprint shareholder who objected to the settlement, asked the Kansas appeals court last month to return the case to Judge Vano’s court so he can reconsider the deal in light of the new evidence showing Mr. Silow had no license to practice law.

Texas High Court to Hear $42M Fee Dispute

March 6, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Casady, “Texas High Court to Hear $42M Atty-Client Fee Dispute,” reports that the Texas Supreme Court on granted a request from the owner of a water supply company, who argued a lower court ignored a jury's findings and wrongly granted a new trial to his two former lawyers in a contingency fee dispute lawsuit involving their right to a stake in his company.
 
In October 2013, a jury rejected the claims of solo practitioners Thomas C. Hall and F. Blake Dietzmann that they were entitled to $42 million in damages under a contingency agreement with Dean Davenport, who won full ownership of a water supply company in an underlying suit.  But about 105 days after rendering judgment, the trial court vacated the judgment and granted the attorneys' request for a new trial.  After an appellate court directed the trial court to provide specific reasons for granting a new trial, it did so in March 2015, holding that the agreement unambiguously provided that fees would be paid out of the ownership in any business recovered, and that the jury's findings weren't supported by the evidence, Davenport told the court.  The high court has scheduled oral arguments in the matter for March 23.

In his petition for writ of mandamus, filed in November 2015, Davenport told the high court it should take the case because the dispute raises the important issue of when a trial court should be allowed to grant a new trial.  In this case, Davenport argued, the trial court disregarded a jury's findings, misstated the record, ignored evidence, credited disputed testimony and “substituted its judgment and credibility decisions for the jury's” in granting his former attorneys' request for a new trial. 

Davenport also argued that the court should weigh in on the “narrow circumstances” under which lawyers and clients can become business partners under contingent fee agreements.  Rule 1.08(a) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct allows for that only if the transaction is fair, reasonable and fully disclosed; the client is given a chance to seek advice from outside counsel; and the client consents to it in writing. None of those safeguards were met in this case, Davenport told the court.

“Nonetheless, the trial court concluded as a matter of law — eleven months after a jury verdict in favor of the client (and after the trial court determined the fee agreement was ambiguous) — that the fee agreement was unambiguous and supposedly entitled the lawyers to become partners in businesses the client purchased in settling his lawsuit,” Davenport wrote.  “In so doing, the trial court ignored the plain language of the fee agreement at issue and the special rules and ethical principles underlying the interpretation of attorney-client fee agreements and attorney-client business transactions, as set forth in Levine, Anglo-Dutch, and Rule 1.08.”

In a February 2016 response arguing against granting the mandamus petition, Hall and Dietzmann told the court that Davenport wants the court to “greatly expand Texas law in ways that would substantially reduce the significance and reliability of all written contracts.”  Their agreement with Davenport, the attorneys told the court, “expressly contemplates paying fees out of the recovery of a business ownership.”

“The trial court did not clearly abuse its discretion by granting a new trial for the reasons stated. As it relates to the payment of attorneys’ fees out of the recovery of an ownership of a business, the agreement is unambiguous,” the brief reads.  “Furthermore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding the evidence was insufficient to support findings that Hall and Dietzmann had waived or should be equitably estopped from asserting their right to be paid under their unambiguous fee agreement with Davenport.”

Hall and Dietzmann filed suit in February 2012, claiming that after the settlements because Davenport was “paid” through his former partners' ownership interests in Water Exploration Co Ltd., they were owed a percentage of the company, instead of the about $400,000 in cash he paid them in December 2009.  They sought about $24.6 million in damages, equivalent to what they said would be the current value of their alleged ownership interest in WECO, plus $18 million in punitive damages.

But the jury found Davenport's contingent fee agreement with the two attorneys did not include a potential ownership stake in WECO, and found the attorneys had waived their rights to seek ownership of WECO and were each estopped from trying to claim a stake in the company.  Jurors also found both attorneys complied with their fiduciary duties to Davenport.

The case is In Re Dean Davenport et al., case number 15-0882, in the Supreme Court of Texas.

Read This Before You Go the Contingency Fee Route

March 3, 2017

A recent CEBblog article by Julie Brook, “Read This Before You Go the Contingency Fee Route,” discusses some of the pitfalls of contingency fees in California.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Among the several alternatives to the traditional hourly fee arrangement, contingency fees have been commonly used for decades.  Under a contingent fee agreement, the attorney and client agree that the attorney will receive a particular percentage of the client’s recovery or of the savings obtained for the client as a fee for legal services, if there is a recovery.  The attorney takes on the risk with the potential for significant reward.  Not surprisingly, there are statutory requirements for these types of agreements—and failing to comply with them is risky, too.

Follow these statutory requirements whenever you enter into a contingent fee agreement:

  1. Put it in writing. Contingent fee agreements must be in writing to be enforceable, except those for the recovery of workers’ compensation benefits or certain merchants’ claims. Bus & P C §§6147-6147.5.
  2. Include certain specific provisions.  In addition to a description of the contingencies entitling the attorney to a fee, the agreement must specify such matters as (Bus & P C §6147(a)):
    • The fee rate agreed on;
    • How the costs of prosecuting and settling the case will affect the fee and the client’s recovery (e.g., in the event of a structured settlement, whether the attorney is paid from first funds);
    • A statement as to what extent the client is required to pay compensation for related matters arising out of his or her relationship with the attorney that aren’t covered by the contingency fee agreement; and
    • A statement that the fee is negotiable.
  3. Follow additional requirements for medical malpractice claims.  If the claim is for medical malpractice and is subject to the maximum fee limits on contingent fees (see Bus & P C §6146), then the fee agreement must include a statement that the rates set out in §6146 are the maximum limits for the contingent fee arrangement and that the attorney and the client may negotiate a lower rate.  Bus & P C §6147(a)(5).  You may want to attach a copy of Bus & P C §6146 to the fee agreement to ensure that the client is informed of its content.
  4. Specify the contingent fee rate.  Contingent fee agreements must specify the contingent fee rate (Bus & P C §6147(a)(1)) and how disbursements and costs in connection with the prosecution or settlement of the claim will affect the contingent fee and the client’s recovery (Bus & P C §6147(a)(2)).  Unless the claim is for medical malpractice and the agreement is thus subject to Bus & P C §6146, the agreement must also include a statement that the fee isn’t set by law but rather is negotiable between the attorney and the client.  Bus & P C §6147(a)(4).
  5. Provide an hourly rate just in case.  The agreement should provide an hourly rate so that the attorney may establish a baseline to recover quantum meruit in the event the attorney is discharged by the client before the completion of the representation.  The hourly rate will also assist the attorney in providing a basis for attorney fee recovery in any potential attorney fee motion.
  6. Anticipate deferred payments or structured settlements.  Whenever payment of the recovery, or any part of it, may be deferred, the fee agreement should specify when the attorney fees must be paid and, when appropriate, how they should be calculated.  Otherwise, the agreement invites dispute and may be subject to being voided by the client for failing to fully comply with Bus & P C §6147.  If the award for future damages in an action for injury or damages against a health care provider is at least $50,000 and either party requests that the award be paid by periodic payments, then the court must order that the future damages be paid, in whole or in part, by periodic payments rather than by a lump-sum payment. CCP §667.7.  In that event, the court must also place a total value on the periodic payments and include that amount in computing the total award from which attorney fees are calculated for purposes of determining the statutory maximum fee. Bus & P C §6146(b).
  7. Provide for noncash awards.  When the award might be partially or entirely in a form other than cash (e.g., reinstatement in a wrongful termination action), the fee agreement should provide for that possibility.  This might be done by providing for a specified hourly fee if the award is not entirely in cash and a contingent fee if it is.  It may also be accomplished by providing for a method for valuing noncash awards.

Failure to include any of the required items makes the agreement voidable at the option of the client (but you would still be entitled to a reasonable fee). Bus & P C §6147(b).  See, e.g., Arnall v Superior Court (2010) 190 CA4th 360, 366 (failure to state in fee agreement that fees were negotiable rendered fee agreement void; fees recoverable by way of quantum meruit).

Insurer Fights Fee Discovery in Texas

February 22, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Casady, “Texas High Court Told to Nix Attys’ Fee Discovery Ruling,” reports that National Lloyd's Insurance Co. urged the Texas Supreme Court to upend a lower...

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