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Five Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses

April 4, 2017 | Posted in : Articles, Ethics & Professional Responsibility, Fee Agreements, Fee Dispute, Fee Dispute Litigation / ADR, Scholarship on Fees, Unpaid Fees

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).