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Category: Fee Agreements

Nine Rules for Billing Ethically and Getting Paid on Time

May 27, 2019

An article on the ABA website by Todd C. Scott, “Nine Rules for Billing Ethically and Getting Paid on Time,” reports on the ethical rules on legal billing.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Henry Ferro (an Ocala, Florida, attorney) was very frustrated with his client, Ron Butler, for refusing to pay his legal fees from a criminal matter where Ferro represented Butler’s son Nick. But all chances of Ferro recovering the $14,000 he says Butler owes him were probably lost for good when Ferro ran into his client at a Lowe’s checkout line and, according to a complaint filed against him, the attorney began yelling that Butler was “a deadbeat who does not want to pay his debts.”

As a result, Ferro became the subject of a harassment complaint by his client Butler, and Butler’s new lawyer argued that not only does his client not owe the fee (because there was no written fee agreement) but also that any amount in excess of the $3,500 Butler already paid to Ferro for his son’s burglary matter would be excessive and unreasonable.

Ferro’s personal attempt to recover his unpaid fee at a Lowe’s store were not any more successful than his other attempts, which are also coming back to haunt him. According to the complaint, when Ferro’s phone calls to the client to inquire about the fees were unsuccessful, he attempted to discuss the fee issue with his client’s sister-in-law after phoning her about the matter. Butler’s harassment claim sought a temporary restraining order enjoining the lawyer from having any further contact with Butler or any member of his family about the fee matter.

Nothing is more frustrating for a lawyer who has worked diligently on legal matters than the realization that clients do not intend to pay their bills. Complicating matters is the fact that, given current economic difficulties, unpaid legal fees are on the rise, and lawyers are looking for ways to recover lost fees more than ever before.

From a malpractice carrier’s point of view, suing your client for unpaid legal fees rarely results in a good outcome. Savvy clients who know that the legal fee is owed will often turn the tables on a lawyer, filing a counterclaim alleging that the fee the lawyer seeks to collect is unreasonable or cannot be justified because the lawyer did substandard work. The client’s counterclaim may be a simple tactic to leverage a bill, but because it is a suit against a lawyer, it must be reported to the lawyer’s malpractice carrier, creating an added headache for a lawyer who just wants to be paid.

So what should a lawyer do to recover a legal fee in a matter that he or she is rightfully owed? Most practice management experts agree that the key to successfully recovering the firm’s net receivables is to take certain steps up front, at the start of the attorney-client relationship, that will put the lawyer in control of the matter if the client falls behind in paying. Also, what you do after the first time a client falls behind with a payment can determine whether you will ever recover anything for your legal services.

ABA Model Rule 1.5, Fees, is the primary regulatory guideline outlining proper fee arrangements and billing practices. The rule addresses several aspects of fee setting, including contingency fees, prohibited fee arrangements, fee sharing, and whether a fee is reasonable. Many states are now considering changes to Rule 1.5 to reflect some of the changing ways lawyers and clients are contracting for legal services. Changes to the rule include provisions on flat fees, availability fees, nonrefundable fees, and unearned fees. In Minnesota, changes to Model Rule 1.5 were adopted by the Supreme Court in late 2010 and became effective on July, 1, 2011.

Throughout Rule 1.5, a few themes are prevalent. Legal fees, whether they are fixed, contingent, or shared with lawyers outside the firm, need to be reasonable. Changes in the rule addressing availability fees and nonrefundable fees are also based on what’s considered to be reasonable billing practices. Although determining whether a bill is reasonable can sometimes be difficult, the rule does provide some factors to be considered when determining the reasonableness of a fee including: the difficulty of the matter, the fee that is customarily charged, whether the work precluded you from working on other legal matters, the results obtained, and the experience of the lawyer performing the service.

Another theme throughout Rule 1.5 centers on consumer protection and has to do with putting the fee agreement in writing. Although the rule stops just short of requiring that a fixed fee agreement be in writing, the authors of the rule state that the “preferable” method for communicating a fee arrangement to a client is in writing, and a written fee agreement is required for legal services involving contingent fees, nonrefundable fees, flat fees, and fee sharing.

So why do some clients choose to not pay their legal bills? When asked, most clients involved in legal fee disputes will tell you the primary motivator for not paying their lawyer was their sense that the amount they were being billed was unfair. Even one small item that affects the client’s sense of fairness in an otherwise large legal bill can sometimes be enough to delay payment and jeopardize the good will that the lawyer previously established. By closely following the tenants of 1.5, lawyers stand a better chance of having clients who understand the billing process and pay the legal bill on time.

The following nine rules for billing and collecting fees from clients that will help you stay on firm ethical grounds, and avoid spending a lot of time on legal work for which you will never be compensated.

1. Communicate the fee arrangement before you start the case.

Getting your client to pay your bill starts with making sure he or she fully understands what you will charge for your services. It may not be a requirement in your jurisdiction, but putting the fee agreement in writing is a good idea, and it allows both you and the client to refer to the document if there are ever any misunderstandings about the bill. Any lawyer that works for several hours on a legal matter and then discusses with the client the fee arrangement risks losing the billable time already devoted to the matter. Clients may not like what they are being charged, but if they feel they understand why they have received the charge and it conforms to what they previously agreed to, they are more likely to pay their legal bill in full.

2. Your fee better be reasonable.

The factors for determining reasonableness of a legal fee in Rule 1.5 are a good guideline for fee setting, and they should be considered on the whole. For example, your hourly fee may be appropriate for the type of work that you are doing, but if your lack of legal experience requires you to spend an inordinate amount of time performing a routine legal task, the amount you bill might be out of line with what’s considered to be reasonable. It is a good idea to take a close look at the factors for determining whether a legal fee is reasonable because they are likely to be referred to by both the lawyer and the client when parties find themselves arbitrating a legal fee dispute.

3. “Nonrefundable” does not mean that you can be paid for doing nothing.

Nonrefundable retainer agreements have caused an increase in attorney-client fee disputes; especially when a lawyer accepts a large retainer fee at the outset of a matter and the matter is soon settled or the lawyer is discharged after having done little or no work. The sense of “reasonableness” that permeates the rules on legal fees extends to nonrefundable fee arrangements, so even if your state has not yet adopted changes prohibiting nonrefundable fee arrangements, you should be ready to refund any unearned portion of your fee unless you can show the amount retained is not disproportionate to the amount of work you committed to the legal matter.

4. Verbal flat fee arrangements are as good as the paper they’re written on.

Some states have adopted changes to the professional fee rules to reflect the growing trend towards flat fee arrangements. A flat fee represents a complete payment for specified legal services and is typically paid in full in advance of the lawyer providing the services. Unless both the lawyer and the client have a clear understanding what the client will be receiving in exchange for the fee, flat fee arrangements can be fraught with misunderstandings and disappointed parties. Therefore, make sure your flat fee agreement is in writing, signed by the client, and notifies the client with specificity the nature and scope of the services to be provided, the total amount of the fee and other terms of payment, that the fee will not be held in trust until it is earned, and that the client has the right to terminate the lawyer-client relationship.

5. Availability fees are separate and distinct from legal services fee.

An availability fee is a charge that ensures the lawyer may be available to the client during a specified period of time or on a specified matter. Because the fee is only for reserving your time that could be used working on other legal matters, your writing to the client should state the fee is for availability only and that fees for legal services will be charged separately.

6. If the fee is shared with someone outside the firm, the client should know exactly where it is going.

It is never a good idea to surprise a client at the end of a legal matter by revealing to them in a remittance statement that an attorney who is not a member of the firm will be sharing in some of the fee. Clients will sometimes assume that if an outside legal expert was involved, then the lawyer they’ve been talking to all along didn’t really do anything to earn the portion of the fee that is going to them. Fee sharing between lawyers of different firms is permitted under Rule 1.5 so long as the division is in proportion to the services performed by each lawyer, the client agrees to the arrangement in writing (including the share each lawyer will receive), and the total fee is reasonable.

7. Three keys for effective invoicing: detail, detail, detail.

Clients may not always like getting a legal bill from you, but if they have sufficient information in the invoice about the legal services you performed, they are more likely to consider the bill to be reasonable and compensate you for your work. The description area for each time entry in the invoice is a prime spot to inform the client with specificity what tasks the lawyer or the staff has performed on their behalf. Even if you’ve handled tasks for which you have no intention of charging the client, let the client know about the work, how much time you spent on the task, and the fact they are getting the service for no charge.

8. When the payment is late, be direct. Clients like direct.

For individual clients that are on a tight budget, when deciding whether to pay the lawyer’s bill or the bill of the person who may have just completed shingling their garage, they think that the lawyer is sufficiently wealthy and won’t mind accepting a late payment. Maybe you don’t mind, but if you do, contact the client after the first missed payment and be direct about your expectations. Often, if you let them know that it is important, they will pay you on time. They may need to be reminded to adhere to the payment schedule in order to continue receiving legal services.

9. Foonberg’s rule: If you’re going to get burned, get burned cheap.

It is much easier to resolve fee problems with clients early on in the legal matter then later when there may be much more at stake. One question lawyers often reflect on when fee disputes arise is, “Why did I let the bill get so high?” If you have to part ways with a client who won’t pay, it is a lot easier to do if they don’t already owe you a lot of money. Jay Foonberg, author of the best selling ABA publication “How to Start and Build a Law Practice,” sums up his advice for lawyers in these situations: if you’re going to get burned, get burned cheap.

Todd C. Scott is VP of Risk Management at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual and specializes in helping lawyers understand legal ethics, risk management techniques, and legal technology systems. Todd blogs at www.attorneysatrisk.com and can be reached at tscott@mlmins.com.

Article: How the Contingency Fee Provides Access to Justice

May 20, 2019

A recent article in Legal Intelligencer by Samuel H. Pond, “The ‘Great Equalizer—How the Contingent Fee Provides Access to Justice” reports on the benefits of the contingency fee model in civil litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

The core principle of our legal system is that all people, no matter their station in life, can bring their disputes to be heard in a court of law.  That’s in theory, in practice, however, justice is not always so available to those with limited means.  However, one innovation has somewhat evened the playing field—the contingent fee agreement.

Leveling the Playing Field

The pursuit of justice can be expensive, with litigation costs and attorney fees piling up quickly.  The average billing rate in 2018 for Pennsylvania attorneys was $262 per hour, according to Clio, a Canadian research firm tracking legal industry metrics.  Corporations and insurance companies often have unlimited resources at their disposal during litigation, putting the average person at a great disadvantage.

Under a contingent fee agreement, a client in a civil matter does not need to pay an attorney unless the case is successful.  Often, attorneys will also front all litigation costs.  Thus, the client does not have to pay anything out of their pocket.  Thus, all fees and costs are paid out of the recovery.

‘Not Going to Get Bullied’

This arrangement has greatly expanded access to the justice system and allowed those with modest means obtain the justice they deserve.  It’s the only way an injured worker can go up against a big insurance company and feel comfortable and confident. You’re not going to get bullied.  It’s a great equalizer.

The contingent fee has allowed ordinary people to sue large corporations and influential entities and receive monetary compensation.  In addition, the contingent fee has given credence to the idea all should be held accountable for their actions and no one is above the law.

Incentivizing Success

In addition, the contingent fee ensures that a lawyer’s interests are fundamentally linked to those of the client.  It incentivizes lawyers to provide the best quality service to clients because if they fail, they will not get paid.

The contingent fee agreement also discourages the filing of frivolous matters.  It is highly unlikely that an attorney on a contingent fee agreement will take on a case that lacks merit because doing so would mean investing thousands of dollars on a case with no hope of recovery.

Contingent fees restore some fairness to the system.  A powerful corporation with its economic clout and high-priced attorneys cannot simply steamroll over a litigant of modest means.  The average person can still get a fair shake by hiring a worthy champion to take up their cause.

Samuel H. Pond is the managing partner at Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano, the a workers’ compensation firm.  For more than 30 years, he has been representing workers injured on the job.  He is also the host of the Legal Eagles radio show, which aims to educate the public on the law.

How Rohrmoos Ruling Could Change Attorney Fees in Texas

May 16, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Cassady, “4 Ways Rohrmoos Could Change Fee Fights in Texas,” reports that the Texas Supreme Court's recent opinion laying out what evidence is needed to prove up attorney fees already is being called by some practitioners the seminal case on the topic and one that could have a major impact on fee fights in the state.

In its Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare LLP ruling, issued, the court sought to dispel what it said was confusion on the part of lawyers and courts about two methods of calculating fees: the Arthur Andersen eight-factor test and the lodestar method.  It said the lodestar method — determining fees by multiplying the number of hours spent working on the case by a reasonable hourly rate — should be the starting point for calculating fees.

The state's high court intended the 56-page opinion to be a "big black-letter case," said Jadd Masso of Clark Hill Strasburger PLC, characterizing it as "the conclusion of an evolution on the part of the court" that encompasses its 2012 opinion in El Apple I Ltd. v. Olivas and its 2013 opinion in City of Laredo v. Montano.  Masso said the lengthy opinion amounts to a "treatise on attorneys fees in Texas."  "It is the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to get fees is through the lodestar method," he said.  The El Apple decision was a signal from the court it wanted to encourage the use of lodestar, Masso said.  And with Rohrmoos, there's no more question about whether there's more than one way to prove up fees, he said.

Here are four ways that the ruling could change fee fights in Texas.

Detailed Billing Records Will Become the Norm

The Rohrmoos opinion didn't mandate real-time billing records to prove up attorney fees, but the court said they are "strongly encouraged to prove the reasonableness and necessity of requested fees when those elements are contested."  While most defense attorneys already do keep such records, the ruling will likely have a bigger impact on plaintiffs attorneys and others who work on a contingent fee or flat fee basis, said Frank Carroll of Roberts Markel Weinberg Butler Hailey.

"I think they have put the final nail in the coffin that anything short of contemporaneous billing records is sufficient," he said.  "People need to avoid the idea that 'this doesn't apply to me.'"  Carrol said lawyers doing simple, flat-rate cases for small amounts of money may not need to worry about keeping those records.  "But for everyone else: Proceed at your own peril if you don't follow the mandate of El Apple, City of Laredo, and this case."

Some defense lawyers, like Michelle Hartmann of Baker McKenzie, already are being pushed by clients into alternative fee arrangements rather than the hourly rate model.  "But we still enter all of the hours that go toward the case.  Not because we're going to bill the client for them, but to double check profitability and see if that was a good fit for both the client and the firm," she said.  "I think most defense attorneys do it now, even with flat-fee arrangements.  But this is a reminder you still need to keep good billing records."

Lawyers Could Face Lengthy Cross-Examinations on Fees

The attorney who represented UTSW in the Rohrmoos case, Wade Howard of Liskow & Lewis, said he tried at oral arguments before the high court to stress that putting hundreds of pages of detailed billing records before the jury would "do nothing" to help them determine what costs are actually reasonable and necessary.  Other practitioners have said that while the jury panel might not be going through those documents page by page, it does provide the other side "better ammunition to cross examine a lawyer," said Kelli Hinson of Carrington Coleman Sloman & Blumenthal LLP.

"They can then ask the tough questions, like, 'Why did you spend 50 hours on a motion for summary judgment that never got filed?' or 'Why were three attorneys doing this when one would have been sufficient?'" she said.  "So the jury gets the advantage of that even if they themselves don't pore through the record."  The Texas Supreme Court seemed to understand that the new guidance could have unintended consequences and warned in its Rohrmoos ruling that it was not "endorsing satellite litigation as to attorney's fees."

But courtroom opponents could easily use the records "as an opportunity to try and make the burden that the claimant has to meet even harder than this decision intended it to be," Hartman said.  And finding that sweet spot could be a years-long process, Hinson said.

"They said we don't want attorneys on the stand for days going through the bills bit by bit," she said.  "I think that's going to be where we struggle over the next few years — trying to find that fine line between what's enough and what's too much."

Outside Experts Could Be Used to Back Up Fee Requests

The ruling could also mean that attorney fees — which in many cases are the largest element of damages — will stop being treated like the "stepchild" of litigation, said John W. Bridger of Strong Pipkin Bissell & Ledyard LLP.  Bridger said that for years he's been advising other attorneys on the value of having an outside expert testify to the reasonableness of requested fees rather than the attorney on the case taking the stand.

For one, it can keep defense lawyers out of the sometimes awkward position of attacking the plaintiffs' attorney fees in front of a jury, and secondly, he said, it would encourage attorneys to spend more time developing the evidence to prove fees.  "This case only pushes us more and more toward outside experts, particularly where the attorneys' fees are larger than the amount in controversy," he said.

And the increasing amount of fees being sought is another reason calling in an outside expert could be worthwhile, said Kurt Kuhn of Kuhn Hobbs PLLC.  "It's inevitable that you're going to see people develop that evidence more. It clearly can't be an afterthought," he said.  "To get an outside expert is going to give you, in front of a jury, a little more credibility."

Counsel-to-Counsel Fee Agreements Could Proliferate

Hinson also speculated that the guidance could cause an uptick in attorneys agreeing to their respective fees ahead of time, keeping that issue out of litigation entirely.  "I do think it will be interesting to see if attorneys veer more that way so at least they know they won't get overturned for not having enough evidence," she said.

In the Rohrmoos opinion, the court "hints at" and "suggests" that stipulating to fees before trial in an agreement with opposing counsel could be a way to avoid contentious fee fights, Masso said.  Because the ruling could be interpreted as requiring "more work" on the part of attorneys trying to prove up fees, Masso said it's possible you'll see more negotiation and agreement on fees.  "This opinion makes the litigation of attorneys' fees a little more complex than it was before," he said.  "And there's no way that it doesn't result in that litigation getting a little more complex, and a little more involved and lengthy."

The cases is Rohrmoos Venture et al. v. UTSW DVA Healthcare LLP, case number 16-0006, in the Supreme Court of Texas.

Milberg Wants New Look at $12M Fee Request in Argentine Bond Case

May 14, 2019

A recent New York Law Journal story by Jack Newsham, “Milberg Claims Firm Cheated Out of $12M Fee in Argentine Bond Case,” reports that, the plaintiffs firm Milberg has sued a group of European investors that it previously represented in years of Argentina bond litigation, alleging the investors fired the law firm to avoid paying an $11.9 million fee.  In the suit, the New York firm is asking a federal judge to throw out an arbitral award that left Milberg with a mere $87,000.

According to Milberg’s suit, filed in Manhattan federal court, money manager Hans Wilhelm Brand fired the firm shortly after receiving a $162 million settlement offer from Argentina and learning that Milberg would be entitled to an $11.9 million contingency fee if he accepted.  People and entities whose money Brand managed, called the HWB investors, switched lawyers and reached a nearly identical settlement a year later, according to Milberg’s suit against the investors.

Milberg said it initiated arbitration against the HWB investors in 2017 seeking legal fees, but received a stunning decision from a three-man disputes panel in February 2019 that found the investors’ payments to Milberg and its other lawyers, totaling $513,000, was sufficient.  The neutrals at the International Centre for Dispute Resolution acknowledged Milberg had done more work for the HWB group than the firm’s billing records might indicate, but said “qualitative considerations have their limitations,” and said no further fees were merited.

“Anyone with passing familiarity with complex litigation prosecuted on a contingency fee basis … would be shocked to learn that a hard-fought case lasting well over a decade, which resulted in a settlement recovery by plaintiffs of $162 million, could end with an award of fees to plaintiffs’ counsel of zero,” the law firm said in its petition. (The firm was paid $87,000 before the arbitration over legal fees began.)

Documents Milberg filed in its suit indicate that it took over the HWB entities’ claims from Marc Dreier by 2010, after Dreier admitted to orchestrating a massive investment fraud scheme and his law firm failed.  The clients had previously paid $110,000 to Dreier and around $300,000 to Argentine lawyer Patricia Rosito Vago and her nonlawyer husband, the arbitral award said in a footnote.

Michael Spencer was the lead Milberg lawyer on the Argentine bond cases, according to the arbitral award, and the firm said the HWB group was its biggest Argentine bonds client.  Milberg received between $5 million and $5.5 million from other clients for its work on those cases, the award said.

The arbitrators noted that Milberg clocked 172 attorney hours and 90 paralegal hours on the HWB entities’ cases, worth $142,900, but spent “more time on the representation of HWB than is reflected in its HWB-specific time records.”  Still, the panel declined to award Milberg any more than it had been paid, saying the $513,000 the HWB investors had paid to all their lawyers was “a reasonable total fee recovery.”

In its lawsuit, Milberg, which reorganized in 2018 and now does business through the firm Milberg Tadler Phillips Grossman, argued that the award should be vacated because it showed manifest disregard for the law.  After firing Milberg, the award said, the HWB clients hired the firm Wilk Auslander to go to bat for them; that firm was paid $1.6 million after billing $2.3 million, according to the award. Milberg argued that Wilk Auslander failed to secure a better settlement than Argentina offered in 2016 through its bond dispute settlement program known as the “propuesta.”

But Wilk Auslander partner Jay Auslander, a lawyer for HWB investors, said in an interview that Milberg had ridden the coattails of other law firms whose clients held much greater amounts of Argentine bonds.  It was those firms that did the heavy lifting, he said, not Milberg.  “That [Milberg] caused the propuesta is, in our view, absurd,” he said in the interview. “We had a highly qualified, highly experienced three-lawyer panel that had a very high level of juridical sophistication and heard a tremendous amount of evidence. … We believe their award will not reasonably be challenged.”

MoFo Settles Suit Over Billing Practices in Texas

May 13, 2019

A recent Texas Lawyer story by Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, “MoFo Settles Texas Suit Over Billing Practices,” reports that Morrison & Foerster has settled a lawsuit in Texas state court filed by a group of former clients who alleged the firm engaged in “egregious overbilling.”  Houston lawyer Peter Taaffe, who represents the plaintiffs, confirmed that his clients, who sought more than $1.5 million in damages, came to an agreement with Morrison & Foerster in mediation.  Terms of the settlement in Synergies v. Morrison & Foerster were not disclosed.

“The parties have come to a mutual settlement and the terms of the settlement are confidential.  The plaintiff parties also add that ‘Morrison & Foerster provided plaintiffs with valuable legal work, and plaintiffs appreciate its counsel,’” Taaffe, of counsel at The Buzbee Law Firm, said in a written statement.  On May 9, the plaintiffs filed a notice of nonsuit with prejudice as to all of the plaintiffs’ claims against Morrison & Foerster.

The plaintiffs, including Firestar Diamond International and its owner, jewelry designer Nirav Modi, initially filed a complaint Feb. 13 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.  Before Morrison & Foerster filed a response, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed that complaint.  They refiled it on Feb. 26 in state district court in Travis County.

In the Travis County petition, the plaintiffs alleged they hired the firm to assist them in winding down companies, but instead of doing the work efficiently and promptly and keeping them informed, the firm concentrated on liquidating assets and transferring money to the firm’s client trust account.

“MoFo then expended an exorbitant and excessive amount of time, primarily on matters that had little to do with winding down the entities.  In the course of two months, MoFo had 34 different timekeepers bill 669 hours at a cost of $485,321,” the plaintiffs alleged in the petition.  They further alleged that they paid the firm $30,000 in retainers, and the lawyers collected $625,319 that was deposited in the firm’s trust account, for a total of $655,319.  However, the plaintiffs alleged, the firm “unilaterally decided to pay itself from these funds” leaving only $170,998 in the trust, and it ultimately only returned $117,305 to them.

The plaintiffs, which include Firestar and related companies, maintain a principal place of business in Austin, according to the petition. They also include Synergies Corp., AVD Trading and Firestar Group.  Plaintiff Modi is facing allegations by India’s Punjab National Bank of engaging in a bank fraud scheme, reportedly involving at least $1.8 billion, according to news reports.  The plaintiffs brought breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, fraud, breach of contract and theft causes of action against Morrison & Foerster.