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RPC 166

January 14, 1994

Increases in Lawyer's Hourly Rate

 

Opinion rules that a lawyer may seek to renegotiate a fee agreement with a client provided he does not abandon or threaten to abandon his client to cut his losses or to coerce a higher fee.

 

Inquiry #1:

 

Where Firm A has an existing contract with a client specifying that fees will be based on usual hourly rates, is it ethical for Firm A to unilaterally impose increases to its hourly rates (ranging from 5% to 10%) without securing further consent from its client regarding these increases?

 

Opinion #1:

 

The inquiry appears to ask for a legal construction of a fee contract with a client and only provides an incomplete description of the contract. To the extent that a legal construction of a fee contract is sought, this is a question of law upon which no opinion is expressed.

 

There are ethical considerations raised by the inquiry. As noted in the comment to Rule 2.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, "[a]n attorney may seek to renegotiate his fee agreement in light of changed circumstances or for other good cause, but he may not abandon or threaten to abandon his client to cut his losses or to coerce an additional higher fee." Moreover, an attorney may not charge a clearly excessive fee under any circumstances, including renegotiation of his fee. Rule 2.6(a).

 

Inquiry #2:

 

If a schedule for hourly rates for each attorney has been attached to the original engagement agreement (which includes an agreement as to fees), would it then be ethical for Firm A to impose a unilateral increase to the hourly rates of those attorneys listed on the schedule without securing further consent from the client?

 

Opinion #2:

 

See Opinion #1 above.

 

Inquiry #3:

 

Is the answer to either (1) or (2) affected by a provision in the fee contract that specifically gives Firm A the right to increase fees annually?

 

Opinion #3:

 

See Opinion #1 above.

 

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