Mark D. White 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Engagement letters address a number of issues that must be clearly understood at the beginning of the lawyer-client relationship. A carefully drafted engagement letter will accomplish two things: 1) It will communicate to the client in a clear fashion all the aspects of the engagement, including payment, and 2) it will comply with all the various disciplinary rules that are applicable to this relationship. Special attention should be given to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (TDRPC) about marking up expenses and explaining the different types of fee arrangements. The following is a list of considerations in drafting an effective engagement letter, including examples for reference. Specific Identification of the Client If the client is an organization, the lawyer represents the organization as distinct from its directors, officers, employees, members, shareholders, or other constituents. The concern here is that the person who speaks to the lawyer on behalf of the organization must legitimately represent the organization and not be in conflict with the organization. The lawyer’s role should be carefully spelled out. The comments to TDRPC 1.12 are very helpful for drafting an agreement. Consider this example: Please understand that although this firm maintains its relationship with ABC, Inc. primarily through contact with President Smith, this firm represents ABC, Inc. in this matter, as distinct from the company’s directors, officers, shareholders, or employees. ABC, Inc. agrees to immediately notify the firm should circumstances arise about whether the company has become adverse to President Smith or whether he ceases to legitimately represent the company. Description of the Specific Objective of the Representation An attorney intending to represent the client in a limited capacity should clearly indicate the specific activities where the attorney will provide legal representation. For example, if an attorney agrees to represent the client in the initial lawsuit but not on appeal, in the event the client does not prevail, then the engagement letter should clearly specify when the attorney client relationship ends. Consider this example: The terms of this letter agreement will be applicable to all matters that we undertake for the Company or for any related or affiliated corporation, partnership, association, or other entity, although we will not undertake representation on any other matter unless requested to do so in writing. No Guarantees Consider this example: We will use our best efforts in representing ABC, Inc., but we cannot assure that we will achieve a favorable outcome. Both the Company and our firm will have the right to terminate this representation upon written notification to the other, provided that, in the event of a termination, the Company will remain liable for our fees and any expenses incurred by us on your behalf prior to such termination plus any fees and expenses incurred at your request in connection with the transition to substitute counsel. Limitations on the Representation TDRPC 1.02 provides that a lawyer may “limit the scope, objectives, and general methods of the representation if the client consents after the consultation.” If the client does consent, these limits need to be spelled out in the fee agreement. However, too often, lawyers attempt to limit their professional duties to their client by having the client sign an agreement prospectively limiting the lawyer’s obligation to communicate with the client. Remember that the fee agreement cannot limit the lawyer’s duties so drastically that the representation would violate Rule 1.01 (neglect) or 1.03 (communication). For example, many fee agreements provide that the client consents to communication through legal assistants, agreeing not to call the lawyer directly. That is contrary to the duties of Rule 1.03 about a lawyer keeping a client reasonably informed about the status of the matter and promptly complying with requests for information. Other limitations on the scope of the representation should be anticipated and spelled out. Consider this example: You acknowledge that this firm does not act as ABC, Inc.’s general counsel and that our acceptance of this engagement does not involve an undertaking to represent your company or its interests in any matter other than that specifically described above. Our representation does not entail a continuing obligation to advise you concerning subsequent legal developments that might have a bearing on the affairs of the company. Someone Else Pays the Bill If someone other than the client is paying the fee, have the client consent to comply with TDRPC 1.08(e). Consider this example: Client consents that the firm will accept compensation from client’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Despite this arrangement, client understands that the firm owes its duties to the client and that the firm will not allow this arrangement to interfere with the firm’s professional judgment or its relationship with the client, and that information relating to representation of client will be maintained as confidential, even as to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Clear Description of the Fee The exact type of fee to be charged must be spelled out clearly in the engagement letter or, at the very least, at the outset of the representation. Consider this example: The billing rates for the professionals who may work on this matter vary in accordance with each person’s experience and expertise. The hourly billing rates currently in effect range from $135 for associates newly admitted to the practice to $350 for our more experienced members of the firm. My billing rate is currently $300 per hour. As part of our efforts to provide you with cost-effective legal services, from time to time we may utilize the services of paralegals and other support personnel for routine tasks such as document organization and review that do not require the attention of an attorney. Some of this work may be substantive legal work to be done by a paralegal under the supervision of a lawyer. Other work may be clerical in nature. Our rates for paralegals currently range from $110 to $135 per hour. Monthly Billing Monthly billings to the client are an effective method of communicating the status of the matter. Ensure the client knows what to expect, particularly regarding payment deadlines, by including this information in the engagement letter. Consider this example: Our customary procedure is to send a statement to you each month for services rendered and expenses incurred during the previous month. Any statement not paid in full within 30 days after the date of the statement will be considered overdue. Overdue invoices may result in the discontinuance of our representation of the Company. Clause Allowing Increase If it is expected that the hourly rate will increase over time, that also should be stated. It is improper to unilaterally raise the fee midstream or to raise a fee without giving the client the opportunity to consult a lawyer. Robinson, 804 S.W.2d at 248 (Tex. App. — Corpus Christi 1991, writ denied) (finding an increased percentage in a contingent fee case is subject to the same requirements as a regular fee). Also, there is a presumption of unfairness attaching to a fee contract entered into during the existence of the attorney-client relationship, and the burden of showing the fairness of the contract is on the attorney. Id. (citing Archer v. Griffith, 390 S.W.2d 735, 739 (Tex. 1964)). Consider this example: The firm reviews its hourly rates annually, and you should anticipate an annual increase (in January) of not more than $10.00 per hour for each lawyer and paralegal working on this matter. Clear Description about How Expenses Will Be Paid Some expenses may be advanced by the lawyer; some expenses may be paid directly by the client, particularly for large items, such as expert’s fees or accountant’s fees. Remember that a lawyer may advance or guarantee court costs, expenses of litigation or administrative proceedings, and reasonably necessary medical and living expenses to the client, and provide that the repayment of those expenses may be contingent upon the outcome of the matter. Other than that, providing financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation is a “prohibited transaction” under TDRPC 1.08. Consider this example: In addition to legal fees, the Company will be responsible for all out-of-pocket expenses incurred in connection with our representation. Such expenses include charges for filing and serving court documents, courier or messenger services, recording and certifying documents, court reporting investigations, long distance telephone calls and other forms of communication, copying materials, overtime clerical assistance, travel expenses, postage, and other expenses. We may elect to forward statements we receive from suppliers to the Company for payment directly to the suppliers, particularly with respect to large expenditures. Clear Description about How Disbursements Will Be Billed The client needs to know at the outset what disbursements will be billed, and how. Is it proper for the lawyer to “mark up” these expenses such that when they are passed along to the client, the lawyer makes some profit on them? Yes, but only if it is reasonable, fully explained, and agreed to by the client at the outset. ABA Commission on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, Formal Op. 93-379. Consider this example: Rather than building an increased overhead factor into our hourly rates, we believe it is appropriate that to the extent possible, costs for ancillary services performed by us be allocated to those of our clients who actually need and use them. Therefore, we will also bill for photocopying and other document reproduction, telecopying, computerized input and retrieval of documents, computerized research, overtime, word processing and similar work by employees, if required by you, or the nature of the services performed for you. We will charge for copies $0.20 per page and for faxes $1.00 per page, although actual costs to us are less. Disclosure about Recovery of Fees Clients should not be misled into thinking that they will recover all of their fees when the cause of action involves a fee-shifting statute. Consider this example: The claims asserted in this matter may involve statutes that provide for the recovery by the successful party of attorneys’ fees from the adverse party. While the firm intends to seek the recovery of fees from defendants as part of your claims, please understand that the jury or Court may award none, or a reduced amount as part of your recovery. If that happens, you are still obligated to the firm for the fees as set out in this agreement. Of course, any recovery of fees from the other side belongs to you and not the firm. Retainers, “Non-refundable” Retainers, “Deposits,” and Flat Fees The term “retainer” has been used to describe several different types of fee arrangements. The use of the word “retainer” is perhaps the most troublesome part of attorney fee agreements. This problem is compounded by the fact that case law sometimes refers to retainers as “general” or “special.” Generally, a retainer is defined as monies paid in advance from which expenses and fees may be deducted. This goes in the lawyer’s trust account until earned. See TDRPC 1.14, cmt. 2. Consider using the term “advance payment” or “deposit.” These words are more descriptive than “retainer.” Consider this example: Client agrees to deposit the sum of $50,000 with the firm, to be billed against on an hourly basis as set out above. This advance deposit will be held in the firm’s trust account until such time as it, or a portion of it, is earned, at which time it will be made available to the firm’s general account. Monthly statements will be sent to the client as provided above. These statements will be paid from the advance deposit 30 days after the date of the statements. At the conclusion of the matter, the balance of the advance deposit will be returned to the client. An “evergreen” retainer is one that must be replenished periodically. Spell this out carefully and provide that any unused retainer will be returned to the client at the conclusion of the matter. Consider this example: In addition to payment of the monthly statements, we ask that the company wire a retainer in the amount of $10,000 to be held in our trust account and to be billed against. We ask that the trust balance be maintained at the level of $10,000, and our monthly statements will reflect the balance necessary to maintain that amount. Of course, at the conclusion of the litigation, any balance in the trust account will be promptly refunded to the company. Lawyer and clients may agree to a “retainer” that is nonrefundable; that is, an amount of money that the client pays you solely for the privilege of having you as his lawyer. David J. Sacks, P.C. v. Haden, 266 S.W.3d 447 (Tex. 2008); Cluck v. Commission of Lawyer Discipline, 214 S.W.3d 736 (Tex. App. — Austin 2007, no pet.). The “true retainer” is paid by the client solely for your availability, readiness, and the privilege of having you as his lawyer, apart from any other compensation. Cluck, 214 S.W.3d 736. Even though the Cluck case calls this arrangement a “true retainer,” consider using the words “engagement retainer fee.” This is even more descriptive and is endorsed by the Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers §34. There is little case law on this topic and what is available is confusing. But we know one thing: All fees must be earned in some way — that is, a benefit to the client must follow. If the fee is non-refundable, then spell out in the fee agreement that it is earned upon payment and why. Supreme Court of Texas Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas, Op. 431, 49 Tex. B.J. 1084 (1986). The key here is that the best way to make a “non-refundable” fee truly non-refundable is to demonstrate and communicate to the client how it was actually earned upon payment. Otherwise, a dispute will most likely follow about whether it was earned in full. The lesson from Cluck is that the fee does not become non-refundable just because it says “non-refundable” in the contract. Cluck, 214 S.W.3d 736. Consider this example: In addition to paying for the professional services on an hourly basis as set forth herein, the client agrees to pay the firm an engagement retainer fee in the amount of $10,000. Such fee is paid in order to secure the firm’s immediate availability and readiness to undertake this representation, and in recognition that due to the publicity of this matter, the firm is likely to be prevented from accepting other legal work in this area. The $10,000 engagement retainer fee is not refundable, and the client agrees that it is earned by the firm immediately. A “flat fee” is an amount agreed to at the outset that constitutes payment in full for the professional services rendered and the related expenses incurred in the representation contemplated. Consider this example: My fee for this representation described above is $25,000. This is a fixed fee and includes any expenses that I may advance, and is not dependent on the course or outcome of the litigation or upon the time I spend on the matter. The fee is due in a lump sum in advance. This money will be held in trust and withdrawn by me as earned. It will be considered earned as follows: 10% after initial interviews and case investigation; 40% after discovery, pre-trial motions, and hearings; 50% after trial. The full fee will be considered earned upon termination of proceedings by trial or settlement, regardless of whether all proceedings have occurred and regardless of time expended or outcome. If my representation is terminated before completion of the engagement, I will be entitled to the reasonable value of my services, and any remaining balance will be refunded. I will notify you when funds are withdrawn from trust and will account for funds remaining in trust. Conclusion Anticipate and address with the client any payment or representation issue that will ensure no misunderstandings. This is a great way to begin a lawyer-client relationship and will make ending the relationship less troublesome. Mark D. White is managing shareholder in Sprouse, Shrader, Smith, P.C. in Amarillo, where his practice includes civil litigation, mediation, and ethics consulting. He is certified in civil trial law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.
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