I believe that a lawyer unpaid is justice denied. Too often, I hear of lawyers not being paid for the great work they do, or having to write-off some or all of a client bill. Part of what I do is to work with lawyers and law firms to maximize the money they earn. But when I read stories, like the one that follows, I just shake my head and wonder "What the hell were they thinking?!
Our society and economy allows lawyers to earn a very healthy living, limited only by the often-ignored "reasonableness" factors listed in Model Rule 1.5. However, when a lawyer's fee agreement, drafted by the lawyer, also imposes limits, then we must live by those limits or face the righteous wrath of clients. That's the lesson of this story in the Connecticut Law Tribune.
According to the story, a Connecticut divorce lawyer included a success fee provision in the fee agreement that stated "In addition to the hourly charges described, we may request an additional reasonable charge for matters of extraordinary difficulty, or which require special expertise or the giving of special priority treatment...This additional charge is subject to your approval after discussion with you. It cannot be imposed unless you agree to it."
So far so good. As a former divorce lawyer, I like what I've read so far.
Apparently in the midst of an intense 5-day mediation effort to resolve the divorce, the attorney insisted on a $300,000 success payment pursuant to the fee agreement. The client balked, but finally paid the bonus after his attorney became "angry and abusive" according to the testimony at trial.
Not surprisingly, the Connecticut jury found that the client did did not agree to the bonus and the court ordered his lawyer to return the money. Now the lawyer is seeking to overturn the verdict and get a new trial.
Excuse me? He's what?
Lawyers, like everyone else, must live with the benefit of their bargain. We must carefully draft our fee agreements and be prepared to live with them. (Just like we expect our clients to honor them too.) Sure, we can attempt to renegotiate the deal if we don't like it, but we can't unilaterally make that change and expect the client to accept it.
Isn't that a basic prinicple we all learned in law school?