“Attorney I hired for a flat rate fee won’t finish until I pay more; what do I do?”

Question: I am a single mom in Florida. I hired an attorney for a flat rate to handle my case. Two months ago, the Judge ruled on the case, and my attorney is supposed to draw up the final settlement documents. 

Since then, I can’t get her to prepare the final papers. When I mentioned this to her she said that the flat rate did not include the final papers. Can my lawyer hold back on the final papers until I pay more? Thank you.

Orlando, Florida

Answer: Dear Alicia: The answer to your question is “No,” but it may take a bit of work for you to get her to do the right thing. Here are my thoughts:    

1. A deal is a deal is a deal. There is no question about it: if your lawyer agreed to handle your case for a “flat rate fee,” that “flat rate fee” should include the final Court papers you describe. It happens a lot: lawyers who agree to a “flat rate fee,” which is something many clients ask for in order to limit their expense, “enjoy” getting the business and the initial check, but often “chafe” when the job takes longer than they like. Well, “too bad” for them, because “a deal is a deal is a deal.”

2. Was your agreement with your lawyer in writing or confirmed in an email? Your note to me did not mention whether your agreement with your lawyer was in writing. That makes me concerned that your lawyer may claim you and she had a different deal, perhaps something like “$2,500 for the Court appearances, but final Court documents are extra.”  

If your agreement with your lawyer was in writing, then the words of that written agreement are entirely enforceable, and controlling on both of you. If your agreement was not in writing, then any emails, witnesses or circumstances that would support your version of the agreement should be gathered together. Even if you have no “evidence” the deal was “A flat fee of $2,500 for the entire matter,” that does not mean you can’t enforce it. In fact, most of the agreements we make on a daily basis are “spoken” and not “written.” It would then be a matter of who is more credible – you or your attorney. As you might know, not too many people believe attorneys, especially in matters like these.   

3. You should now write to your attorney, and send your letter in a “verifiable manner,” insisting she honor the deal she struck with you. I don’t know whether your communications with your attorney have been “spoken” or “written,” but it is important that you now put into writing (a) the initial deal, (b) her seeming to dishonor that deal, and (c) your insistence that she act honorably and complete the task. It should be clear, respectful and specific, written in such a way that your grandmother would be proud of you, and even a middle school student can understand it. That is the standard of good, effective writing that I hold my own writing to. Understand that one day, it may be read by others: (i) the Judge in the case, (ii) the Attorney Ethics and Disciplinary Authorities in your community, and (iii) possibly even one day a jury. In fact, I suggest you put “cc: Judge and Attorney Ethics and Disciplinary Authorities” at the bottom of your letter. 

By the way, by “verifiable manner” I mean email, Certified U.S. Mail, Return  Receipt Requested, UPS Overnight or Federal Express.    

4. I suggest you send a copy of your letter to the Judge in your Court case, with a note asking him or her to assist you in finalizing the matter. Judges like to get cases resolved, something in legal circles we call “dispositions.” For this reason, your Judge might just contact your attorney and tell him or her, “Get this thing done.” While it is not the “official” way for Judges or their Law Clerks to get cases “disposed” of, it is a way many use to simply “get things done.” Chances are your attorney will be sufficiently “motivated” by just the “cc” to the Judge at the end of your letter, to do the right thing, now, and without additional charge.   

5. Only if your letter to your attorney, copied to the Judge, does not work would I then suggest you actually send a copy of your letter to Attorney Disciplinary Authorities. Attorney Disciplinary Authorities tend to act quite slowly and your need for the final Court papers seems to be a bit on the urgent side. Also, the amount of work your attorney would have to do in order to answer any inquiry from the local Attorney Disciplinary Board would probably be more than the Court papers she is avoiding. 

You can find your local Attorney Ethics or Disciplinary Board by putting “Orlando,  Florida” and “Attorney Ethics, Bar Association” or similar words into a Google, Yahoo or Bing search engine and seeing what comes  up. 

It’s bad enough having to stand up with a lawyer; it should not be the case that you need to stand up to your lawyer. I think this course of action will work for you. I hope this has been helpful. Thanks for writing in.    

My Best,
Al Sklover

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