Communications & Fee Disputes

April 1999

by Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC

Many jurisdictions have rules of professional conduct that compel arbitration of fee disputes. These proceedings often are binding on the attorney and not binding for the client. If the client is not satisfied with the arbitration results, the client has the right to file a de novo proceeding.

Yet, those who arbitrate fee disputes between attorneys and clients have identified two things that the attorneys involved could have done to avoid the dispute in most of the cases: 1) provide a written fee agreement, and 2) improve communication with the client.

A written fee agreement, properly discussed with and explained to the client at the very first meeting, is a marvelous tool to sell an attorney's skills and to explain the business nature of the prospective relationship. This is the time to tell the client that the process is a two way street: The attorney will do the work as promised, and the client will pay for the services as promised. Failure of either party to keep their part of the bargain will cause the attorney-client relationship to deteriorate.

Another way to improve the communication process is for the attorney to keep the client informed of everything that is happening in the matter and what is expected to happen in the future. One good tool for such communication is the development of a budget. A budget should contain an explanation of the events that are expected to occur (with assumptions clearly set forth) and the costs anticipated to accompany each such event. Getting the client to "buy-in" to these future expectations can prove very effective in assuring prompt payment of the billings as the work proceeds according to the budget.

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April 1999