ILNews

IBA: Eliminate Surprises; Use Caution and Care When Changing Fee Agreements

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Bell James Bell

By James J. Bell

It’s a typical case and the potential client and you have agreed to a flat fee of $10,000 for the entire representation. However, as the case trudges through the system, the case requires more work than expected. You should get paid for the extra work, right?

You awkwardly approach the client, explain the situation and ask for an additional $5,000. There is a pause and then a smile creeps across your client’s face. “Of course you can have an additional $5000!” the client exclaims. After all, the client loves you. He agrees that the case has become a bear, that you are doing an outstanding job and that you have earned even more than the requested $5,000. In fact, he is willing to give you $6,000.

The client dives for his checkbook and hastily writes you a check. You memorialize the entire transaction in writing, it is signed by your client and the additional $6,000 is yours. Just to make sure there are no hard feelings, the client even gives you a hug. Everyone is happy. So there is no way you just violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, is there?

Unfortunately, you have violated the Rules if you failed to advise the client to seek the advice of independent legal counsel before agreeing to the new fee agreement and if you did not otherwise fulfill the requirements of Rule 1.8(a) pertaining to “business transactions” with your client. Some lawyers may be surprised to learn that changing a fee in the middle of a case is considered a “business transaction” by our Supreme Court and Disciplinary Commission. However, because you are about to endure this entire article, you will not be one of those “surprised lawyers.”

The first “surprising” aspect of Rule 1.8(a) is that it never specifically mentions anything about the modification of a fee agreement. That language is reserved for the Comment. Furthermore, the language pertaining to modifications of a fee agreement does not appear in the Comment to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and therefore, it is unlikely you were taught this topic in law school or tested on this subject on the MPRE. Aren’t surprises wonderful?

The language of Comment states that 1.8(a) “applies when a lawyer seeks to renegotiate the terms of the fee arrangement with the client after representation begins in order to reach a new agreement that is more advantageous to the lawyer than the initial fee arrangement.” Comment to 1.8[1]. To be clear, Rule 1.8(a) “does not apply to ordinary initial fee arrangements between client and lawyer” because there is no established attorney-client relationship. Id. However, once a trusting relationship is established, the Comment to 1.8(a) serves to curb the “possibility of overreaching” by sophisticated lawyers. Id.

So if you still want to change the fee to one that is more advantageous to you, then you must follow 1.8(a) to the letter. This includes “advising the client in writing of the desirability of seeking… the advice of independent legal counsel” and giving the client “informed consent, in a writing signed by the client.” See Rule 1.8(a)(2) and (3) of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct. “Informed consent” is a term of art and it is defined in Rule 1.0(e).

Must your client actually get advice from another lawyer? No. The client just has to be advised in writing that it is a good idea to do so. If you are really doing a good job for your client and have truly earned the additional fee, there is no reason to fear that independent counsel will inadvertently interfere with your relationship with your client.

What if the new deal is not more “advantageous” to the lawyer? My advice is to follow 1.8(a) anyway. The practice of law is unpredictable. Cases that are certain to go to trial often settle on the courthouse steps. Difficult transactions can turn out to be simpler than anticipated. When the unexpected happens, it is difficult to look backwards and assess whether a new fee was more “advantageous” to the lawyer. If you follow 1.8(a) before the unexpected happens, you will not have to quibble about who got the better deal.

Unfortunately, if you care about your clients and your reputation, there are many ways to have sleepless nights while engaging in the practice of law. Avoiding the surprises and pitfalls of 1.8(a) is one way to avoid a few of those sleepless nights.•

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Whether you support "gay marriage" or not is not the issue. The issue is whether the SCOTUS can extract from an unmentionable somewhere the notion that the Constitution forbids government "interference" in the "right" to marry. Just imagine time-traveling to Philadelphia in 1787. Ask James Madison if the document he and his fellows just wrote allowed him- or forbade government to "interfere" with- his "right" to marry George Washington? He would have immediately- and justly- summoned the Sergeant-at-Arms to throw your sorry self out into the street. Far from being a day of liberation, this is a day of capitulation by the Rule of Law to the Rule of What's Happening Now.

  2. With today's ruling, AG Zoeller's arguments in the cases of Obamacare and Same-sex Marriage can be relegated to the ash heap of history. 0-fer

  3. She must be a great lawyer

  4. Ind. Courts - "Illinois ranks 49th for how court system serves disadvantaged" What about Indiana? A story today from Dave Collins of the AP, here published in the Benton Illinois Evening News, begins: Illinois' court system had the third-worst score in the nation among state judiciaries in serving poor, disabled and other disadvantaged members of the public, according to new rankings. Illinois' "Justice Index" score of 34.5 out of 100, determined by the nonprofit National Center for Access to Justice, is based on how states serve people with disabilities and limited English proficiency, how much free legal help is available and how states help increasing numbers of people representing themselves in court, among other issues. Connecticut led all states with a score of 73.4 and was followed by Hawaii, Minnesota, New York and Delaware, respectively. Local courts in Washington, D.C., had the highest overall score at 80.9. At the bottom was Oklahoma at 23.7, followed by Kentucky, Illinois, South Dakota and Indiana. ILB: That puts Indiana at 46th worse. More from the story: Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Colorado, Tennessee and Maine had perfect 100 scores in serving people with disabilities, while Indiana, Georgia, Wyoming, Missouri and Idaho had the lowest scores. Those rankings were based on issues such as whether interpretation services are offered free to the deaf and hearing-impaired and whether there are laws or rules allowing service animals in courthouses. The index also reviewed how many civil legal aid lawyers were available to provide free legal help. Washington, D.C., had nearly nine civil legal aid lawyers per 10,000 people in poverty, the highest rate in the country. Texas had the lowest rate, 0.43 legal aid lawyers per 10,000 people in poverty. http://indianalawblog.com/archives/2014/11/ind_courts_illi_1.html

  5. A very thorough opinion by the federal court. The Rooker-Feldman analysis, in particular, helps clear up muddy water as to the entanglement issue. Looks like the Seventh Circuit is willing to let its district courts cruise much closer to the Indiana Supreme Court's shorelines than most thought likely, at least when the ADA on the docket. Some could argue that this case and Praekel, taken together, paint a rather unflattering picture of how the lower courts are being advised as to their duties under the ADA. A read of the DOJ amicus in Praekel seems to demonstrate a less-than-congenial view toward the higher echelons in the bureaucracy.

ADVERTISEMENT