Editor's Note: This opinion was originally published as RPC 158 (Third Revision).
Advance Payment of Legal Fees
Opinion rules that a sum of money paid to a lawyer in advance to secure payment of a fee which is yet to be earned and to which the lawyer is not entitled must be deposited in the lawyer's trust account.
Attorney A undertakes to handle a traffic matter for Client B. Client B gives Attorney A a check for $400. They agree that $350 of that sum represents A's fee and the rest is to be used for costs. Attorney A and Client B have no signed fee agreement and there is no specific negotiation between A and B regarding whether the fee would be refundable under any circumstances. Nevertheless, Attorney A considers the fee as a nonrefundable "true retainer."
Attorney A deposits Client B's $400 check into his attorney trust account and immediately withdraws $350 which he spends at once. Attorney A leaves the $50 in costs in the trust account. Two days after Client B has paid Attorney A, Client B discharges Attorney A and demands a refund of the $400. Attorney A has done no work on the matter, except for a 20 minute initial meeting with Client B. Attorney A gives Client B $50 only and refuses any additional refund on the grounds that the $350 was a nonrefundable retainer.
Has Attorney A violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by immediately withdrawing the entire $350 fee from his trust account or should he have left the fee in the account until he did more work on B's case?
In order for a payment made to an attorney to be earned immediately, the attorney must clearly inform the client that it is earned immediately, and the client must agree to this arrangement. In the instant case, it is plain that the fee was negotiated and paid as compensation for services which were to be rendered. Nothing was said by the attorney to indicate that the payment was nonrefundable or earned immediately upon payment. Therefore, despite Attorney A's misperception, the fee was a deposit securing the payment of a fee which was yet to be earned. As such, it was incumbent upon Attorney A to deposit the money in her trust account. See Rule 10.1(c)(2) and official comment. To the extent that any portion of the fee paid in this case was unearned at the time Attorney A was discharged, that amount should be paid back to Client B by check drawn on the trust account. Rule 2.8(a)(3).
Attorney Z undertakes to handle a traffic case for Client X. Attorney Z tells X that he will handle the entire matter for $500 and that the $500 will cover his fees as well as any fines or costs in the case. Although Z knows generally how much the fines and costs are in traffic cases, the amounts do vary somewhat, depending upon the judge and the facts of the particular case. Consequently, the smaller the fine and costs, the more of the $500 which Attorney Z gets to keep as a fee.
Does this fee arrangement violate any provision of the Rules of Professional Conduct?
No. Although the amount of the fee earned by Attorney Z may be partially indefinite at the time the fee is paid by Client X, the fee earned by Attorney Z is not a contingent fee which would otherwise be prohibited in a criminal case by Rule 2.6(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct. In order for a fee to be contingent, the fee received by the lawyer and the amount paid by the client must both be contingent upon the outcome of the case. In the present case, the amount paid by Client X remains the same whatever the amount of the fine and whatever the costs. This type of flat charge for representation on a traffic offense gives a client certainty as to the ultimate cost of the representation.
How much, if any, of the $500 must be held in Attorney Z's trust account until the traffic matter is resolved?
If Attorney Z and Client X intend that the $500 represents a payment of fees to be earned and costs, then Attorney Z must deposit the entire $500 in the trust account. If Attorney Z and Client X agree that the payment represents costs and a flat fee to which Attorney Z is immediately entitled, and the payment is in cash, any portion of the payment which is intended to cover costs must be deposited in Attorney Z's trust account and any portion of the payment which is Attorney Z's fee must be deposited in her operating account. See Rule 10.1(c)(2). If Attorney Z and Client X agree that the payment represents costs and a flat fee to which Attorney Z is immediately entitled and the payment of the entire $500 is by check, the check must be deposited in Attorney Z's trust account and, upon ascertaining the amount of the costs or an amount sufficient to cover the costs, Attorney Z should promptly withdraw that portion that is fee and deposit it in her operating account. Rule 10.1(c)(2). Whether the fee portion is deposited in the trust account or paid over to the operating account, any portion of the fee which is clearly excessive may be refundable to the client either at the conclusion of the representation or earlier if Attorney Z's services are terminated before the end of the engagement. Rule 2.6 (a). See also O'Brien v. Plumides, 79 N.C. App. 159, 339 S.E.2d 54, cert. dismissed, 318 N.C. 409, 348 S.E.2d 805 (1986).
Will the answer to Inquiry #3 be any different depending upon whether Attorney Z and Client X agree that Z's fee is a nonrefundable retainer?
The situation posited in Inquiry #2 does not involve a nonrefundable retainer. See RPC 50. See also Opinion #3 above.