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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. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  2. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  4. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  5. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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