Published on June 4th, 2019 by Alan L. Sklover
“Be careful who you trust – The devil was once an angel”
ACTUAL CASE HISTORIES: Wendy hired an attorney to represent her in a lawsuit against a former employer. Her agreement with the attorney said that attorney would represent her on a “contingency” basis, meaning that the attorney would be paid only if the lawsuit was successful, and then he would be entitled to 1/3 of the proceeds.
The lawsuit was settled for $90,000, and so Wendy expected that she would receive $60,000 (that is, 2/3 of $90,000), and the attorney would get $30,000 (that is, 1/3 of $90,000). It turned out that the lawyer got his $30,000, but Wendy only received $40,000. How come? The other $20,000 went to pay the expenses of litigation.
Les also hired a lawyer to represent him in a lawsuit against his former employer. He also agreed to a 2/3 split for Les and 1/3 split for the lawyer. The case was, unfortunately, dismissed in favor of the employer. So, the lawyer got nothing, and Les got nothing . . . but Les did receive something a few weeks later: a bill for $25,000 for the expenses of the lawsuit. How come? That is what the attorney’s retainer provided for, unbeknownst to Les. Les even lost money on his “contingency fee” case.
In both cases, each of the lawyers’ retainer agreements provided that the client was responsible for the expenses of the lawsuit, whatever that came to. Sad, because it might have said something different if Wendy and Les had noticed it, and asked to change it.
LESSONS TO LEARN: In any relation involving money, it is important to the success of the relation to enter into a clearly written and fully understandable agreement on all of the terms and conditions of the relation. Nowhere is that more important than in the attorney-client relation.
A lawyer’s retainer agreement is a contract, and should be no less clear and no less understandable than any other contract; maybe more so, especially if they anticipate lawsuits, which can be heavily burdened by costs and expenses.
“Contingency Fee” means “A fee comprised of a percentage of payments received, if any.” While you might think that it suggests “payments received after expenses are taken off the top,” it does not say that. It says nothing at all about costs and expenses.
Costs and expenses of a lawsuit commonly include: (a) Court filing fees; (b) process server fees; (c) expert witness fees; (d) Court reporter costs; (e) photocopying costs; (f) messenger and postage costs; (g) costs related to obtaining medical, government and school records; (h) transcript costs; and lots, lots others. In some cases, they end up being in the many tens of thousands of dollars. And, as noted above, if you lose your lawsuit, you just might also have to pay your employer’s legal costs. BIG OUCH!!
The need to raise – and clarify – this issue early on is important. So many clients get mentally and emotionally distracted in the process of hiring legal counsel; others get intimidated. This particular point often gets lost in the process, but is an important one to focus on before the onset of the attorney-client relation.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: When hiring an attorney, make sure you understand the attorney’s retention agreement. Especially if you are considering hiring an attorney on a “contingency” basis, make sure you understand who “swallows” the expenses. Don’t just focus on the possible amount of money to come your way; focus, too, on the amount of money that may leave your wallet, related to expenses.
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