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Category: Fee Agreement

$110M Fee Request Trimmed in $650M Facebook Biometric Settlement

February 26, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “$650M Facebook Privacy Deal OK’d, $110M Atty Fees Trimmed,” reports that a California federal judge praised a $650 million settlement resolving claims that Facebook's facial recognition technology violated Illinois users' biometric privacy rights, calling it a "landmark result," but he trimmed the $110 million requested attorney fees to $97.5 million.  U.S. District Judge James Donato gave his final stamp of approval to the multimillion-dollar deal resolving claims under the "new and untested" Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, calling it a major win for consumers in the "hotly contested" area of digital privacy.

The settlement will put at least $345 each into the hands of 1.6 million class members who filed claims, according to the order, and Facebook has agreed to set its "face recognition" default setting to "off" for all global users and delete all existing and stored face templates for the class members.

But Judge Donato also cut back the $110 million in attorney fees that class counsel at Edelson PC, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP and Labaton Sucharow LLP asked for, saying the $650 million size of the settlement fund is not a typical case that warrants the use of a 25% contingency fee as a benchmark.  The judge said in this case it would be more appropriate for him to adjust the benchmark percentage or employ the lodestar method instead to avoid "windfall profits" for class counsel.

"To be clear, the court recognizes the skill, dedication and hard work class counsel brought to this case and their clients," Judge Donato said.  "The fact that the court cannot in good conscience award fees on the presumption of a 25% contingency cut should not be read as detracting from that in any way."

"It is simply a matter of fairness and proportion," the judge said.  He said a 25% presumption is just too big to be applied to a settlement fund as large as this one.  The class counsel spent more than 30,103 hours on the case, according to the order — including 9,577 hours by Robbins Geller, 8,103 hours by Labaton Sucharow and 12,423 hours by Edelson.

The judge adjusted the percentage rate from 16.9% of the settlement fund to 15%, giving the class counsel $97.5 million in attorney fees, according to the order.  The judge said he also cross-checked that number with a lodestar calculation and found the award to be more reasonable than the one requested.  But the judge said 15% of the attorney fee award will be held back pending further order.  He granted the class counsel's request for $915,000 in expense reimbursement, finding sufficient documentation, according to the order.

The judge also reduced the incentive awards for the three class representatives — Nimesh Patel, Adam Pezen and Carlo Licata — from the requested $7,500 each to $5,000 each, saying that even though the requested amount would be a "minuscule proportion" of the settlement, it's still too high in comparison to the amount other class members will receive.

Judge Donato praised the parties' "proposed array of innovative ways to reach class members" and notify them of the settlement, including by direct email, Facebook's newsfeed notifications, publication in Illinois newspapers, a settlement website and an internet ad campaign.  "These were robust measures, and they paid off in spades," the judge said.

Lead Counsel Defends $800M Fee Request in Roundup MDL

February 19, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Amanda Bronstad, “Lead Counsel in Roundup MDL Defend $800M Fee Request,” reports that lawyers defending as much as $800 million in proposed common benefit fees from settlements with Monsanto insisted that the law firms objecting to their request had painted “an incomplete and inaccurate picture” of the Roundup litigation.  More than a dozen law firms had objected to the fee request, with one of them calling the request a “money grab” by lead counsel in the multidistrict litigation.  In a response, lead counsel insisted that the award was justified.

They said Bayer, which owns Monsanto, would not have entered into settlements last year but for their work, which included obtaining three Roundup verdicts.  “The pleadings and affidavits submitted by the objectors present an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the Roundup litigation,” they wrote.  “The simple fact remains that all Roundup attorneys and plaintiffs have benefitted from MDL leadership’s efforts—irrespective of whether or where their cases are filed or unfiled and whether their individually retained attorneys have cases pending in the MDL, have formally availed themselves of MDL work product, or have entered into a formal participation agreement.”  Lead counsel are Robin Greenwald, of Weitz & Luxenberg in New York; Michael Miller, of The Miller Firm in Orange, Virginia; and Aimee Wagstaff, of Andrus Wagstaff in Lakewood, Colorado.

Bayer announced in June that it planned to settle about 125,000 Roundup claims for an estimated $10.9 billion, which included a class action settlement that lawyers later withdrew.  The settlements were not part of a global agreement, however.  Lawyers, including lead counsel, conducted their own negotiations, which have been confidential, and many cases remain unsettled.

In a Jan. 11 motion, lead counsel sought an 8.25% assessment on Roundup settlements to pay for fees and expenses spent on the “common benefit” of all lawyers.  U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California, overseeing the Roundup multidistrict litigation, filed a Jan. 26 order asking lawyers to address four questions about the holdback request, including whether it is even necessary and, if so, how much, and whether it should be lower than the proposed 8% in fees and 0.25% in expenses.  He also asked whether he could issue a holdback “without understanding how much of a premium co-lead counsel has already received on their settlements compared to the typical settlement.”

Several firms criticized the request, particularly on top of an estimated $2 billion in attorney fees they claimed that lead counsel made from contingency fee contracts associated with their own cases, which settled last year for greater amounts than Monsanto is now offering.

In their response, lead counsel noted that the proposed holdback includes an assessment on their own cases, and would compensate about 20 firms not in leadership.  They also said that the assessment pertained only to about 400 law firms that had done one of the following: had at least one case pending in the multidistrict litigation, signed a participation agreement, used “work product” in the multidistrict litigation, or sought help from Kenneth Feinberg, the special master, in settlement negotiations.

“The circumstances of this litigation warrant an expansion of the current scope of the holdback to encompass the entire universe of settlements, because all Roundup plaintiffs have undoubtedly benefited from the efforts and expenditures of common benefit attorneys,” they wrote.  “Indeed, the extensive work that this court has conducted in issuing opinions and managing the litigation have had a direct effect on each and every Roundup case or claim, irrespective of whether or where an attorney might have filed his or her cases.”  Many of the objecting firms had insisted they did not use discovery in the multidistrict litigation and that lead counsel purposely kept the experts to themselves.  Lead counsel countered that they had made work product available on a firm website and provided a “trial package” and experts.

Addressing the objections of specific firms, lead counsel said that Beasley Allen had a pending case in federal court that is part of the trial pool and had coordinated with Weitz & Luxenberg, one of the lead counsel firms, to obtain experts in its state court cases.  Beasley Allen also had asked for an 8% holdback in the multidistrict litigation against Johnson & Johnson over talcum powder, they wrote.  They also attacked the objections of The Lanier Law Firm as “untrue and baffling” given that the firm reached out to lead counsel to retain their experts for upcoming Roundup trials in Missouri state courts.  The Lanier Law Firm also had sought a 10% holdback in multidistrict litigation over DePuy Orthopaedics’ Pinnacle hip implants.

In an email, W. Mark Lanier called the comparison “apples and oranges,” given the amount of work done in the hip implant cases, and disputed claims that he used experts from the multidistrict litigation.  “I find the pleading and allegations a bit baffling as well,” he wrote. “I personally had been told most every expert was being pulled by MDL leadership, and non-MDL cases would have to find their own experts.”  Chhabria has scheduled a March 3 hearing on the fee dispute.

NJ Case Has Lessons on Arbitration Clauses in Attorney Retainers

February 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Hilary Gerzhoy, Deepika Ravi, and Amy Richardson, “NJ Case Has Lessons On Arbitration Clauses in Atty Retainers”, reports on arbitration clauses in attorney retainers in New Jersey.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On Dec. 21, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued Delaney v. Dickey, an opinion that severely limits the enforceability of arbitration provisions in law firm retainer agreements.  The court held that an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement is only enforceable if an attorney provides "an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration" to a client before the client signs the retainer agreement.

The decision, which applies prospectively, tracks and builds on other jurisdictions' limitations on the enforceability of arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  Attorneys wishing to resolve client disputes via arbitration should take close note of these heightened disclosure obligations.

Delaney v. Dickey

Delaney v. Dickey addressed whether an arbitration provision contained within Sills Cummis & Gross PC's four-page retainer agreement was enforceable.  A Sills attorney provided the retainer agreement to client Brian Delaney during an in-person meeting.  The retainer agreement contained a provision stating that any disputes about the law firm's fees or legal services would be resolved by arbitration.

The arbitration provision stated that the result of any arbitration would not be subject to appeal, and that Delaney's agreement to arbitration waived his right to a trial by jury:

The decision of the Arbitrator will be final and binding and neither the Firm nor you will have the right to appeal such decision, whether in a court or in another arbitration proceeding.  You understand that, by agreeing to arbitrate disputes as provided in this retainer letter, you are waiving any and all statutory and other rights that you may have to a trial by jury in connection with any such dispute, claim, or controversy.

The retainer agreement included a one-page attachment that contained a hyperlink to the JAMS rules.  However, the Sills attorney did not provide Delaney with a hard copy of the JAMS rules at the meeting.  The attachment also stated that the arbitration would be conducted by one impartial arbitrator; that the parties waived any claim for punitive damages; that the arbitration would be binding, nonappealable and confidential; and that the parties would share the arbitrator's fees and expenses, except that the arbitrator could award costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney fees and expert witness costs.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the arbitration provision was unenforceable "[b]ecause Delaney was not given an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration."

The court recognized that the Sills attorney had disclosed, in the retainer agreement and attachment, several of the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum — but it found that disclosure insufficient.  Instead, the court required that the attorney provide an "explanation" of these differences — but it did not provide clear guidance on what is required for a sufficient explanation.  Importantly, the court held that an attorney must explain the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, even when the client is "a sophisticated businessman."

The mere recitation of these differences in the retainer agreement, and the Sills attorney's "[offer] to answer any questions" Delaney had about the retainer agreement was insufficient to meet the attorney's fiduciary obligations.  Instead, the court imposed an obligation to explain the advantages and disadvantages of an arbitration provision either orally or in writing.

Although the court did not explicitly so state, its opinion suggests that an attorney cannot merely list the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, but rather must explain how those differences might affect the client's interests in the event of a future dispute.

What Happens Outside of New Jersey?

The New Jersey Supreme Court pointed to a string of ethics opinions and case law from other states that support heightened disclosure obligations on an attorney where an arbitration provision is included in a retainer agreement.  The court also pointed to jurisdictions that require a lawyer to go even further and advise a client to seek independent counsel before agreeing to arbitrate future disputes.  Delaney closely tracks the American Bar Association's Formal Opinion 02-425, Retainer Agreement Requiring the Arbitration of Fee Disputes and Malpractice Claims, issued in 2002.

The opinion concluded that a binding arbitration provision requiring all "disputes concerning fees and malpractice claims" to be resolved via arbitration does not violate ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4(b), "provided that the client has been fully apprised of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has given her informed consent to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement" and the arbitration provision does not "insulate ... or limit the liability to which she would otherwise be exposed under common and/or statutory law."

Because a lawyer has a fiduciary "duty to explain matters to a client," she must "advise clients of the possible adverse consequences as well as the benefits that may arise from the execution of an agreement" that includes an arbitration provision.  Accordingly, compliance with Rule 1.4(b) requires that the lawyer "'explain' the implications of the proposed binding arbitration provision 'to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make [an] informed decision' about whether to agree to the [provision's] inclusion" in the retainer agreement.

Unlike the New Jersey opinion, the ABA concluded that just how extensie that disclosure must be will depend on "the sophistication of the client."  However, consistent with Delaney, the lawyer "should make clear that arbitration typically results in the client's waiver of significant rights, such as the waiver of the right to a jury trial, the possible waiver of broad discovery, and the loss of the right to appeal."

For these reasons, the Sills attorney's failure to explain these differences to Delaney would similarly fail under the ABA standard.  While ABA opinions are persuasive, not binding, authority on the states, they are an important road map for attorneys seeking to understand their ethical and practical obligations.

The District of Columbia takes a similar approach.  D.C. Ethics Opinion 376, published in November 2018, concludes that an agreement to arbitrate fee disputes and legal malpractice claims is otherwise permitted by the rules, provided that the lawyer has adequately informed the client about "material risks of and reasonably available alternatives to" the proposed arbitration clause such that the client is "fully informed."

That requires, at minimum, that the attorney inform the client about differences between a judicial and arbitral forum as to (1) the fees to be charged; (2) the scope of discovery; (3) a right to a jury; and (4) a right to an appeal.  Like ABA Formal Opinion 02-425, the D.C. opinion also advises that the scope of the discussion depends on the level of sophistication of the client.

What Should an Attorney Explain to a Client, and How?

While the Delaney case is only controlling in New Jersey, it provides useful guidance for attorneys hoping to create binding arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  As the Delaney court noted, the differences between resolving an attorney-client dispute in arbitration or before a judicial forum can be communicated orally, in writing, or both.

The New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division stated in Delaney that it did not hold that the "reasonable explanation" required of an attorney cannot be contained in the written retainer agreement.  However, the New Jersey Supreme Court's opinion did not directly address that question, suggesting that an attorney can sufficiently explain the advantages and disadvantages of the arbitral forum within the retainer agreement.

Rather, the court held that the disclosure in the case before it — which merely recited several of the differences between a judicial and arbitral forum, with no additional explanation provided orally or in writing about these or other differences — was insufficient.  Recognizing that not all arbitration provisions are alike, the court enumerated several differences between an arbitral and judicial forum about which a client might need to be advised including the following:

1.  An arbitration resolves a dispute before a single arbitrator and not a jury of one's peers.

2.  The arbitrator's decision is final and binding with no right of appeal.

3.  Unlike court proceedings, arbitration proceedings are conducted privately and the outcome will remain confidential.

4.  Unlike court proceedings, the arbitration process offers a more limited right to discovery.

5.  The client may be responsible, in part, for the costs of the arbitration proceedings, including payments to the arbitrator.

6.  A plaintiff prevailing in a judicial forum may be entitled to punitive damages, but that right may be waived in an arbitral forum.

7.  A judicial forum generally does not permit reasonable attorney fees to be imposed against a nonprevailing client in a nonfrivolous malpractice action, whereas an arbitral forum may permit an award that imposes costs, expenses and reasonable attorney fees against the nonprevailing party.

However, the court was silent as to how an attorney is to translate that list into a compliant explanation to a client.  Practically then, attorneys should, at a minimum, explain — not merely recite — these differences to a client prior to the client agreeing to a mandatory arbitration provision.

The attorney's explanation should include, for example, that applicable arbitration procedures offer limited discovery — for instance, the JAMS procedures "limit each party to 'one deposition of an opposing [p]arty or of one individual under the control of the opposing [p]arty'" whereas judicial rules do not have a set limitation on the number of depositions available.

The attorney should also explain that, unlike a court proceeding where neither party pays for a judge's time, parties in arbitration often split the cost of the arbitrator's hourly rate, which can be costly.  And, at least in New Jersey, an attorney must provide a hard copy of the rules governing the arbitration — but note that neither D.C. Ethics Opinion 376 nor ABA Formal Opinion 02-425 imposes that requirement.  And, perhaps most importantly, an attorney must understand the relative benefits and disadvantages of arbitration so as to answer any client questions.

Conclusion

While agreements to arbitrate attorney-client disputes are routinely permitted, attorneys' ability to enforce such agreements will turn on the client's ultimate understanding of the implications of agreeing to arbitration.  Attorneys should, as always, consult the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and related guidance in their jurisdiction — and when in doubt, should err on the side of explaining, both orally and in writing, the benefits and disadvantages of an arbitral forum.

Hilary Gerzhoy is an associate, and Deepika Ravi and Amy Richardson are partners, at Harris Wiltshire & Grannis LLP.

Article: Five Lessons for Recovering Attorney Fees in Texas

February 13, 2021

A recent article by Amanda G. Taylor, “Recovering Attorney’s Fees in Texas: Five Lessons” in BizLit News Blog reports on recovering attorney fees in Texas.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Obtaining an award of attorneys’ fees might be the final step in a long-waged litigation battle but to do so successfully requires careful planning and diligence from the outset of a case.  The Texas Supreme Court recently clarified the evidence required to obtain and affirm such an award.  Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare, LLP, 578 S.W.3d 469 (Tex. 2019).  The Texas Supreme Court also recently confirmed that these evidentiary standards apply equally when fees are sought to be recovered as a sanction.  Nath v. Texas Children’s Hosp., 576 S.W.3d 707, 710 (Tex. 2019).  To best serve a client’s interests of recovering attorneys’ fees in Texas, whether as a prevailing party or as a sanction, lawyers should adhere to five lessons from Rohrmoos.

Lesson One:  Confirm a legal entitlement to recover fees.  “In Texas, as in the federal courts, each party must pay its own way in attorney’s fees … unless a statute or contract provides otherwise.”  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 484.  Certain claims, such as a breach of contract claim brought under Chapter 38 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, entitle a prevailing party to recover attorneys’ fees.  Other claims, such as a common law fraud claim, do not afford such a remedy.  In establishing your initial case strategy, it is important to consider which claims will and will not allow for recovery of fees, and advise your client about the pros and cons of pursuing each claim accordingly.  Also, be aware of fee-shifting procedural tools (such a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act) and various Texas statutes and rules that allow for recovery of fees as a sanction (such as Civil Practice and Remedies Code Chapters 9-10, and Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 215).

Lesson Two: Keep accurate, contemporaneous billing records.  Although billing records are not absolutely required to prove the amount of reasonable and necessary fees, it is “strongly encouraged” to submit such proof in support of attorneys’ fees.  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 502.  It is much easier to review, summarize, and testify about the work performed (often years later) if you have been diligent in your billing practices throughout.  Time should be kept in a manner that demonstrates the “(1) particular services performed, (2) who performed those services, (3) approximately when those services were performed, (4) the reasonable amount of time required to perform the services, and (5) the reasonable hourly rate for each person performing the services.”  Id.  It is also advisable to keep time in a manner that is specific enough to cover the topic but without legalese and without so much detail that heavy redactions become necessary.  Fact finders prefer to read invoices in plain English without the interruption of hidden text.

Lesson Three:  Your fee agreement does not control the amount awarded.  “[A] client’s agreement to a certain fee arrangement or obligation to pay a particular amount does not necessarily establish that fee as reasonable or necessary.”  Id. at 488.  Translation: even if you have agreed to handle the matter for a flat fee or contingency fee, you still must demonstrate that the amount of fees sought for recovery are reasonable and necessary based on the work performed and the time incurred.  Regardless of the fee arrangement with your client, keeping accurate and contemporaneous billing records is important.

Lesson Four: Remember to timely designate fee experts.   “Historically, claimants have proven reasonableness and necessity of attorney’s fees through an expert’s testimony—often the very attorney seeking the award.”  Id. at 490.  “[C]onclusory testimony devoid of any real substance will not support a fee award.”  Id. at 501.  Because expert testimony will be required, the attorney must remember to designate herself and any other attorney who will offer an opinion about the reasonableness and necessity of the fee amount(s) as an expert witness in compliance with the scheduling order or discovery control plan governing the case.

Lesson Five: Understand the “Texas two-step” calculation method.  At step one, calculate the “base” or “lodestar” amount by multiplying the “reasonable hours worked” by a “reasonable hourly rate.”  Id. at 498.  This is an “objective calculation” that yields a “presumptively reasonable” amount.  Id. at 497-98, 502.  The determination of what is a reasonable market rate and what is a reasonable amount of time will typically include consideration of the following factors: (1) the time and labor required, (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (3) the skill required to perform the legal service properly, (4) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services, (5) the amount involved, (6) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services, (7) whether the fee is fixed or contingent and the uncertainty of collection, and (8) the results obtained.  Id. at 500.  At step two, “adjust[] the base calculation up or down based on relevant considerations … [that were not] subsumed in the first step.”  Id.  “If a fee claimant seeks an enhancement, it must produce specific evidence showing that a higher amount is necessary to achieve a reasonable fee award.”  Id. at 501. Remember that only “rare circumstances” justify such an adjustment.  Id. at 502.

Following these five lessons from the outset of a case will be beneficial to the expert testifying about the amount of fees at the end of a case.  More importantly, it will benefit your client’s best interest in obtaining a monetary award and being able to have that award affirmed on appeal.

Amanda G. Taylor serves as Practice Group Leader of Butler Snow LLP’s Appellate Group and practices from the firm’s Austin, TX office. As a Board-Certified Civil Appellate specialist, Amanda helps to shape successful case strategy from the outset of litigation through the end of an appeal.  Amanda is a detail-oriented lawyer who represents her clients with passion, stays current on emerging trends and issues, and brings a practical perspective to problem solving.  She has a broad range of experience handling complex civil disputes regarding contracts, fraud, tax, insurance, products, employment, real property, and trust and estates.  Amanda is also committed to community service through a number of positions in her State and Local Bar Associations.

Article: The Right Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?

February 7, 2021

A recent New York Law Journal article by Milton Williams and Christopher Dioguardi, “Retaining the ‘Right’ Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?,” reports on different retainer types in New York.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

This article evaluates which type of retainer agreement gives attorneys the best chance to preemptively shield their retainer fees before a client ends up in bankruptcy or the Department of Justice seizes and forfeits the client’s assets.

The scenario is this: A struggling business on the precipice of bankruptcy, or a criminal defendant whose property is subject to forfeiture, would like to hire you.  The prospective client has funds available to pay its legal fees, but what if you and/or the client expect that bankruptcy trustees or the Department of Justice will soon claim those funds for themselves?

At the outset of an engagement, an attorney can structure his or her retainer agreement to protect the retainer to the greatest extent possible in the event the client’s creditor comes knocking.  New York law recognizes three types of retainers: “classic,” “security,” and “advance payment.”  And under New York law, a retainer fee is shielded from attachment so long as the client does not retain an interest in the funds. See Gala Enterprises v. Hewlett Packard Co., 970 F. Supp. 212, 219 (S.D.N.Y. 1997).  For this reason, described in more detail below, it is the “advance payment” retainer agreement that will likely provide the most protection.

The ‘Classic’ Retainer

This type of retainer is typically a single, up-front payment to the lawyer simply for being available to the client—the attorney commits to future legal work for a specific period of time, regardless of inconvenience or workload constraints.  The classic retainer is not for legal services, and is therefore earned upon receipt, whether or not the attorney performs any services for the client (i.e., it is nonrefundable). See Agusta & Ross v. Trancamp Contr., 193 Misc.2d 781, 785-86 (N.Y. Civ. Ct. 2002) (general retainer compensates a lawyer for “agree[ing] implicitly to turn down other work opportunities that might interfere with his ability to perform the retainer-client’s needs” and “giv[ing] up the right to be retained by a host of clients whose interests might conflict with those of the retainer-client”).

Because the classic retainer is earned upon receipt and is nonrefundable, it without a doubt provides the most protection against would-be creditors.  However, the classic retainer is really only “classic” in the sense that it relates to antiquity.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a situation in the modern practice of law where a client would want to pay a classic retainer.  And attorneys would be remiss to draw up a nonrefundable classic retainer agreement unless certain specific conditions are met.

In general, under New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(d)(4), “[a] lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge or collect … a nonrefundable retainer fee.” Further, under Rule 1.16(e), fees paid to a lawyer in advance for legal services are nonrefundable only to the extent they have been earned by the lawyer: “upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall promptly refund any part of a fee paid in advance that has not been earned.” See also Matter of Cooperman, 83 N.Y.2d 465, 471 (1994) (holding that nonrefundable retainer fee agreements clash with public policy and transgress the rules of professional conduct; affirming lower court decision that the use of nonrefundable fee arrangements warranted two-year suspension.); Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219 (narrowly construing the holding in Cooperman, and holding that only retainers with express non-refundability language are invalid per se).

The Security Retainer

While the classic retainer might offer the attorney the most security, the security retainer offers little defense against a client’s future creditors.  Typically, payments pursuant to a security retainer are placed in an escrow or trust account to be drawn upon only as the fee is earned.  In other words, the security retainer remains the property of the client until the attorney applies it to charges for services rendered.

So long as the client retains an interest in escrowed funds, the escrow account is attachable.  Under New York law, a security retainer may be attached so long as it is subject to the client’s “present or future control,” or is required to be returned to the client if not used to pay for services rendered. See, e.g., Lang v. State of New York, 258 A.D.2d 165, 171 (1st Dept. 1999); Potter v. MacLean, 75 A.D.3d 686, 687 (3d Dept. 2010) (defendant owed more than $20,000 in arrears on child support obligations and subsequently paid law firm a $15,000 retainer fee; the court found that the retainer fee, which was held in escrow, was subject to restraining order); M.M. v. T.M., 17 N.Y.S.3d 588, 599 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2015) (wife’s restraining notice against husband’s attorney’s security retainer was valid and enforceable); see also Pahlavi v. Laidlaw Holdings, 180 A.D.2d 595, 595-96 (1st Dept. 1992) (judgment debtor deposited $50,000 with his attorney after receipt of a restraining order and the court ordered his law firm to return them).

The Advance-Payment Retainer

Similar to the security retainer, the advance-payment retainer is a fee paid in advance for all or some of the services to be performed on a specific matter.  However, unlike a security retainer, ownership of the advance-payment retainer passes to the attorney immediately upon payment in exchange for the attorney’s promise to provide the legal services.  This type of retainer is likely the best way to ensure that the client has sufficient funds to pay for expected legal services.

Under an advance-payment retainer agreement, the law firm places the money into its operating account and may use the money as it chooses, subject only to the requirement that any unearned fee paid in advance be promptly refunded to the client upon termination of the relationship (recall Rule 1.16(e)).

A client’s contingent future interest in an advance-payment retainer, if any, that would be refunded if the firm’s services were prematurely terminated is not a sufficient basis for attachment. See Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219.  Therefore, the most secure option will likely be to require an advance payment for all services to be rendered, commonly referred to as a flat or fixed fee.  In other words, a creditor would not be able to seize such a retainer, even if part of the retainer may yet be refundable.  In Gala Enterprises, the court held that because a $150,000 flat fee as well as a $500,000 flat fee were subject to refund only if the legal services were prematurely terminated, the fees were therefore not attachable.

However, just because a client has paid an advance-payment retainer, does not mean that the retainer is untouchable.  Two specific possibilities come to mind.  First, Gala Enterprises illustrates that law firms might need to defend against fraudulent conveyance claims.  That being said, if the retainer is not excessive or unreasonable, the attorney is in a good position to defend against any such claims.  It goes without saying, when establishing a flat fee—or any fee for that matter—the fee must not be excessive. See Rule 1.5(a) (“[a] lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an excessive [] fee …”).

Second, attorneys of course must not accept funds that may have been obtained by fraud. See, e.g., S.E.C. v. Princeton Economic Intern. Ltd., 84 F. Supp. 2d 443 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (lawyer who blindly accepts fees from client under circumstances that would cause reasonable lawyer to question client’s intent in paying fees accepts fees at his peril.).

Conclusion

In sum, we offer this advice:

  1. Review the Rules of Professional Conduct and case law cited herein, as well as the relevant New York State Bar Association ethics opinions, specifically: Ethics Opinion 570, June 7, 1985; Ethics Opinion 816, Oct. 25, 2007; Ethics Opinion 983, Oct. 8, 2013; and Ethics Opinion 1202, Dec. 2, 2020.
  1. Be transparent and direct with prospective clients regarding retainer agreements.
  2. A reasonable advance-payment retainer for all services to be rendered will give attorneys the most protection against future unknown creditors.
  3. Make clear in the retainer agreement that the client acknowledges and agrees that the advance-payment will become the law firm’s property upon receipt and will be deposited into the law firm’s operating account, not into an escrow account or a segregated bank account.
  4. Acknowledge in the retainer agreement that the client may be entitled to a refund of all or part of advance payment based on the value of the legal services performed prior to termination.

Milton Williams is a partner and Christopher Dioguardi is an associate at Walden Macht & Haran LLP in New York.

Polsinelli Sued Over Billing Issues

January 22, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Craig Clough, “Polsinelli Says Clients’ ‘Slacking Off’ Claims are “Meritless”,” reports that Polsinelli PC urged a Pennsylvania federal judge to toss a lawsuit...

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