Recovering Legal Fees from Opposing Party
Opinion rules that a law firm may not charge a clearly excessive fee for legal representation even if the legal fee may be recovered from an opposing party.
Law Firm has considerable experience in the practice of community association and planned community law. Over time, Law Firm has established certain fees for collection activities provided to its association clients. These collection activities include the prosecution of liens, foreclosures, and bankruptcy proceedings. Law Firm has determined that the fees it charges for these collection activities are reasonable based upon the time and labor required; the difficulty of the questions involved; the skill required to perform the legal service; the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyers providing the services; and the customary fee for like work in the same locality. Where possible and permitted by law, Law Firm recovers attorney's fees and expenses incurred in connection with these collection activities from the responsible debtor. All fees not recovered are paid by the client association that retained Law Firm to pursue the action.
Manager of Association X has requested that Law Firm agree to substantially increase the legal fees it charges to debtors from whom fees are recovered and to agree not to bill Association X on cases where fees are not recovered from the debtor. Association X would continue to pay expenses incurred by Law Firm in connection with the collection activity. No part of the monies recovered by Law Firm for Association X would be paid to Law Firm as a contingent fee. Is this fee arrangement ethical?
No. Essentially, the fee arrangement requires Law Firm to offset the losses it may realize on cases where legal fees cannot be collected from the debtor by inflating fees in the cases where it is able to recover fees from the debtor. Rule 2.6(a) prohibits a lawyer from charging or collecting a clearly excessive fee. Subsection (b) of Rule 2.6 sets forth certain factors to be taken into consideration in determining the reasonableness of a fee including, but not limited to, the following: (1) the time and labor required and the skill involved; (2) whether the acceptance of particular employment will preclude other employment; (3) fees customarily charged in the same locality; (4) the results obtained; (5) time limitations; and (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent. If Law Firm collects more than the fee that it has already determined to be reasonable for the services rendered to Association X after taking into account the factors set forth in Rule 2.6(b), Law Firm would be charging and collecting an unethical excessive fee whether the fee is collected from Association X or an opposing party. In addition, if Law Firm inflates its fee in a request to a court and/or a demand to a debtor for recovery of legal fees, Law Firm would be engaging in misrepresentation of the actual fees incurred for that particular collection action in violation of Rule 1.2(c) which prohibits a lawyer from engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, deceit, or misrepresentation.