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Money and Ethics: "Non-refundable" Fees

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By Kevin P. Mcgoff and James J. Bell
 

Bell James Bell
McGoff Kevin McGoff

It’s the beginning of a case and your client has agreed in writing to a $10,000 non-refundable retainer. You get to work. The case is messy. There are motions to prepare, witnesses to interview and your client is constantly calling for “updates.”

But your client doesn’t really want updates. Instead, he wants to feel good. He needs reassurance. This case is important to him and he is understandably worried about what lies ahead. You take time from the case to do a little hand-holding. This is part of the job. You became a lawyer to help people through their biggest problems, and you’re getting paid to hear your client.

Days go by. You’ve done everything your client has asked and have told him about each, separate step by phone and via e-mail. The client calls again and you get comfortable for next conversation.

But this call is different. Your client says he appreciates your hard work, but he “wants to go in another direction.” As it turns out, his step-brother’s barber knows a lawyer who is second cousin to the judge’s nephew. He wants someone with more of an “inside track.” In other words, you’re being dumped. He tells you “it’s not you, it’s me”. He hopes you can “still be friends.” “That’s fine,” you say to yourself. Now, you can have your life back.

Oh. And there is one more thing: He wants his money back.

You blow a fuse. No way. While you may or may not have completed $10,000 worth of work, what does this guy think “non-refundable” means? You tell your ex-client to read the fee agreement and take a hike. There will be no refund. It is a “non-refundable fee.”

Have you violated the Rules of Professional Conduct? Yes. In fact, you may have violated the Rules twice. The first time was at the outset of the case, when your fee agreement called for a “non-refundable” fee. The second time was when you refused to refund any part of the money because you said the fee was non-refundable. This and other lessons are contained in the recent decision in Matter of O’Farrell, No. 29S00-0902-DI-76, 2011 Ind. LEXIS 72 (Ind. Feb. 11, 2011).

In O’Farrell, the Supreme Court concluded that “the assertion in a fee agreement that an advance fee is nonrefundable violates [Rule 1.5(a)’s] requirement that a lawyer’s fee be reasonable.” Id. at *10. The Court also noted that “an attorney cannot treat a fee as ‘earned’ simply by labeling the fee ‘earned on receipt.’” Id. at *12 (citations omitted).

How then do you protect yourself from the above situation? The Court suggests that “[a]s an alternative, a fee agreement could designate a reasonable part of the initial payment that would be deemed earned by the attorney for opening the case and beginning the representation.” Id. at *18. “Even without such contract provisions, ‘[i]t is well settled that, where the complete performance of an attorney’s services has been rendered impossible, or otherwise prevented, by the client, the attorney may, as a rule, recover quantum meruit for the services rendered.” Id. at *19 (citations omitted). In other words, you can retain the earned portion of the fee.

In fact, in O’Farrell, our Supreme Court was “not prepared to hold that some amount of a flat fee must be returned in all cases in which the attorney-client relationship ends before the work contracted for is completed.” Id. at *20. The Court also acknowledged circumstances in which the “entire flat fee could be deemed earned if the client deals unfairly with the attorney.” Id. Finally, the Court acknowledged circumstances where a client could pay a “general retainer” which is “payment for an attorney’s availability, which is earned in full when paid before any work is done.” Id. at *6-7. However, a “general retainer” cannot be charged for “routine legal services.” Id. at *11 (Citations omitted). It can only be justified in circumstances where, for example, the attorney is “preclu[ded from] other representations.” Id. (citations omitted).

So here is what we can take away from O’Farrell: 1) Avoid fee disputes, if possible; 2) Revisit and revise your engagement letter or fee contract; 3) Remove the term “non-refundable” from your fee agreement; and 4) Never treat a fee as non-refundable. If you charge a “general retainer,” make certain that the circumstances justify this arrangement and realize there is a risk that others may not agree that a general retainer is justified. Finally, if you are terminated from a case, work with the former client to find a reasonable amount, based on the amount of work performed, to retain as your fee.•

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  1. Whilst it may be true that Judges and Justices enjoy such freedom of time and effort, it certainly does not hold true for the average working person. To say that one must 1) take a day or a half day off work every 3 months, 2) gather a list of information including recent photographs, and 3) set up a time that is convenient for the local sheriff or other such office to complete the registry is more than a bit near-sighted. This may be procedural, and hence, in the near-sighted minds of the court, not 'punishment,' but it is in fact 'punishment.' The local sheriffs probably feel a little punished too by the overwork. Registries serve to punish the offender whilst simultaneously providing the public at large with a false sense of security. The false sense of security is dangerous to the public who may not exercise due diligence by thinking there are no offenders in their locale. In fact, the registry only informs them of those who have been convicted.

  2. Unfortunately, the court doesn't understand the difference between ebidta and adjusted ebidta as they clearly got the ruling wrong based on their misunderstanding

  3. A common refrain in the comments on this website comes from people who cannot locate attorneys willing put justice over retainers. At the same time the judiciary threatens to make pro bono work mandatory, seemingly noting the same concern. But what happens to attorneys who have the chumptzah to threatened the legal status quo in Indiana? Ask Gary Welch, ask Paul Ogden, ask me. Speak truth to power, suffer horrendously accordingly. No wonder Hoosier attorneys who want to keep in good graces merely chase the dollars ... the powers that be have no concerns as to those who are ever for sale to the highest bidder ... for those even willing to compromise for $$$ never allow either justice or constitutionality to cause them to stand up to injustice or unconstitutionality. And the bad apples in the Hoosier barrel, like this one, just keep rotting.

  4. I am one of Steele's victims and was taken for $6,000. I want my money back due to him doing nothing for me. I filed for divorce after a 16 year marriage and lost everything. My kids, my home, cars, money, pension. Every attorney I have talked to is not willing to help me. What can I do? I was told i can file a civil suit but you have to have all of Steelers info that I don't have. Of someone can please help me or tell me what info I need would be great.

  5. It would appear that news breaking on Drudge from the Hoosier state (link below) ties back to this Hoosier story from the beginning of the recent police disrespect period .... MCBA president Cassandra Bentley McNair issued the statement on behalf of the association Dec. 1. The association said it was “saddened and disappointed” by the decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown. “The MCBA does not believe this was a just outcome to this process, and is disheartened that the system we as lawyers are intended to uphold failed the African-American community in such a way,” the association stated. “This situation is not just about the death of Michael Brown, but the thousands of other African-Americans who are disproportionately targeted and killed by police officers.” http://www.thestarpress.com/story/news/local/2016/07/18/hate-cops-sign-prompts-controversy/87242664/

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