Attorney should discuss fees at the onset
It is often considered impolite to talk about money but by not doing so, disagreements about money can arise and impair even the best relationships. That is why, for the sake of a successful attorney-client relationship, it is important to discuss fees in great detail at the onset of the relationship in order to avoid any future misunderstandings and conflicts.
Attorney’s fees should always be reasonable. However, it is likely that the attorney and client will have a different definition of reasonableness. Therefore, multiple factors should be considered when determining a reasonable fee such as the time and labor commitment, the novelty and difficulty of the issues involved, whether the fee is fixed or contingent, and the skill required to perform the legal services correctly. The fee customarily charged in the area for similar services should also be considered as well as the experience and reputation of the attorney performing the services. If it is likely that the attorney-client relationship would preclude other employment by the attorney, it can be reflected by the fee agreement. Similarly, time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances can also impact the cost of the legal services. The fee can, moreover, reflect the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client. Not all factors are applicable in every case and these factors are not exclusive; the specific circumstances of each attorney-client relationship dictate the reasonableness of the fee.
In addition to fees, an attorney can seek to recover any expenses incurred as a result of the services provided. Such reimbursement also must be reasonable. Typical in-house expenses include copying, mailing, and recording fees. Those charges must be reasonable or agreed upon in advance.
In a new attorney-client relationship, the rate of the fee and expenses for which the client will be responsible must be communicated to the client early, clearly, and in sufficient detail. It is recommended that the fee arrangement is agreed upon before the representation commences but it is acceptable if it occurs within a reasonable time after entering into an attorney-client relationship. When the attorney has regularly represented a client, it is possible that there is already a mutual expectation regarding the fees and costs. However, even then it should be confirmed with the client.
It is acceptable for the client’s ability to pay to define the scope of the legal services provided by the attorney. However, the terms of the fee agreement should not impair the attorney’s ability to act in the client’s best interest. For example, unless sufficiently explained to the client, the fee agreement should not state that the services will be provided only to a certain amount when it is likely that more extensive services will possibly be necessary. Such arrangement would leave the client without legal assistance while the case is pending.
In order to avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings, the fees and costs agreement should be in writing. At the very least, an attorney should provide a client with a copy of the customary fee arrangement that outlines the nature of the legal services to be provided, the rate of the fee or the total amount of the fee, the basis for the fee, and whether the client will be responsible for any costs. Anytime a change in the basis or rate of the fee or expenses occurs, it should also be immediately communicated to the client.
So, don’t be afraid to talk to your attorney about the fees and costs. Always gain a clear understanding of the fee arrangement before entering into attorney-client relationship.
Natalia Vander Laan is a Minden attorney practicing estate planning, family law, and workers’ compensation.