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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. A traditional parade of attorneys? Really Evansville? Y'all need to get out more. When is the traditional parade of notaries? Nurses? Sanitation workers? Pole dancers? I gotta wonder, do throngs of admiring citizens gather to laud these marching servants of the constitution? "Show us your billing records!!!" Hoping some video gets posted. Ours is not a narcissistic profession by any chance, is it? Nah .....

  2. My previous comment not an aside at court. I agree with smith. Good call. Just thought posting here a bit on the if it bleeds it leads side. Most attorneys need to think of last lines of story above.

  3. Hello everyone I'm Gina and I'm here for the exact same thing you are. I have the wonderful joy of waking up every morning to my heart being pulled out and sheer terror of what DCS is going to Throw at me and my family today.Let me start from the !bebeginning.My daughter lost all rights to her 3beautiful children due to Severe mental issues she no longer lives in our state and has cut all ties.DCS led her to belive that once she done signed over her right the babies would be with their family. We have faught screamed begged and anything else we could possibly due I hired a lawyer five grand down the drain.You know all I want is my babies home.I've done everything they have even asked me to do.Now their saying I can't see my grandchildren cause I'M on a prescription for paipain.I have a very rare blood disease it causes cellulitis a form of blood poisoning to stay dormant in my tissues and nervous system it also causes a ,blood clotting disorder.even with the two blood thinners I'm on I still Continue to develop them them also.DCS knows about my illness and still they refuse to let me see my grandchildren. I Love and miss them so much Please can anyone help Us my grandchildren and I they should be worrying about what toy there going to play with but instead there worrying about if there ever coming home again.THANK YOU DCS FOR ALL YOU'VE DONE. ( And if anyone at all has any ideals or knows who can help. Please contact (765)960~5096.only serious callers

  4. He must be a Rethuglican, for if from the other side of the aisle such acts would be merely personal and thus not something that attaches to his professional life. AND ... gotta love this ... oh, and on top of talking dirty on the phone, he also, as an aside, guess we should mention, might be important, not sure, but .... "In addition to these allegations, Keaton was accused of failing to file an appeal after he collected advance payment from a client seeking to challenge a ruling that the client repay benefits because of unreported income." rimshot

  5. I am not a fan of some of the 8.4 discipline we have seen for private conduct-- but this was so egregious and abusive and had so many points of bad conduct relates to the law and the lawyer's status as a lawyer that it is clearly a proper and just disbarment. A truly despicable account of bad acts showing unfit character to practice law. I applaud the outcome.

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