Avoiding Disputes About Attorney Fees

The state Legislature has passed a bill that imposes new burdens on the way lawyers handle their clients; most notably, a requirement for a written fee agreement. But why wait for the governor to sign the bill into law?

As a client, you can impose reasonable burdens on your own lawyers now.

The bill, SB 1569, authored by Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside), requires fee agreements between attorney and client in most non-contingency-fee cases in which the client is expected to pay more than $1,000. The contract must describe the general nature of the legal services and the "respective responsibilities" of the attorney and client.

Itemization of Fees

The law requires that invoices for services rendered must include an itemization of fees and charges, including the hourly rates of the lawyers working on the case. Fee agreements are not required when the client is a corporation.

An earlier version of the bill required that attorneys provide a written estimate of the costs expected in the case and notify the client of any substantial increases in costs as the case progressed.

Just because the bill no longer includes these items, it doesn't mean they are not good suggestions.

You don't need a law to force a lawyer to meet your needs. As a client, you can make the same demands as the proposed law. Ask your lawyer for a written estimate before the work begins. If you can't get a written estimate, you can pick another attorney.

Keep in mind that most of the time it will be impossible for your lawyer to predict precisely how much it will cost to litigate a case because some of the expense will depend on unknown variables--how hard the other side will fight or how long your lawyer has to wait in court.

Still, you should be able to get a rough estimate, and if you want a will prepared, a lease written or a contract reviewed, the lawyer should be able to give you a firm price.

Also be sure to confirm with your lawyer that you will not pay for any unusual expenses, such as investigator fees or computer research, unless you authorize them in advance.

As originally proposed, the bill had shifted the burden of proof to the lawyer in any dispute over fees. You can't shift that legal burden yourself, but you can openly discuss fees with your lawyer and perhaps negotiate a discount if you feel they are excessive. And most local bar associations operate arbitration programs to help resolve fee disputes.

In fact, a state law requires arbitration of lawyer-client fee disputes in most cases. To find out more about the arbitration program, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to State Bar Pamphlets, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102. Ask for a copy of the free pamphlet, "What Can I Do If My Lawyer's Bill Seems Too High?"

The L.A. County Bar Assn. operates its own fee arbitration program. The fee for the arbitration is 5% of the amount in dispute with a minimum charge of $50 and a maximum charge of $3,500. The client usually pays the arbitration fee, but sometimes during the arbitration the attorney can be convinced to pick up the tab. For more details, call (213) 627-2727, Ext. 250.

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