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Bar News - November 18, 2015

Morning Mail: Thoughts on Attorney Fee Agreements

I enjoyed your article on unbundled legal services in the Oct. 21 issue of Bar News. Your article brought to mind the issue of fee agreements, a topic on which I have written here some of my thoughts, which may interest Bar News readers.

The most basic yet essential part of representation is the fee agreement in which the attorney outlines the scope of representation. At its essence, the fee agreement is a contract and as such is governed by the laws of contract as they relate to the professional obligations of an attorney to the client. Yet, given the importance of the fee agreement in the scheme of representing the client, attorneys often relegate this most important document to boilerplate, one-size-fits-all language.

As attorneys, we often implore clients to read what they’re signing, but in the case of the fee agreement, are we as attorneys really reading and understanding what we are asking our clients to sign? More to the point, when presenting a fee agreement, does the attorney truly understand the scope of the representation being offered?

The importance of the fee agreement is highlighted when an attorney provides unbundled services, especially in the context of a pro se client. Particularly with unbundled services and limited-scope representation, the attorney should consider the client’s expectations, personality, and his or her understanding of the limits and obligations of the attorney and the agreement.

The practice of law is demanding and time precious, but it behooves attorneys to take a hard look at the fee agreement that a client to going sign and analyze whether it fits a specific situation, or whether it needs to be adjusted to meet the demands of a particular client or case.

Attorneys would be loath to advise a client to use boilerplate agreements to enter into real property transactions. Similarly, given that each client is unique and presents a unique set of circumstances, don’t attorneys have a similar responsibility to customize their fee agreements? This can mean the difference between a smooth representation where both the client and attorney’s expectations are met and a difficult representation that results in a bad experience for all involved.

Michael Listner
Twitter @nhlegalrsrch

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