There are some things a lawyer can guarantee

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Published on 8/4/08

No lawyer can ethically guarantee a result. To do so comes under Rule of Professional Conduct 7.1's prohibition of false or misleading communication, which the American Bar Association's commentary says includes "lead[ing] a reasonable person to form an unjustified expectation" about results.

However, lawyers can guarantee a certain degree of effort without violating the code, because it deals with factors within the lawyer's own control.

Such a "guarantee" reduces clients' feelings of risk so that they feel comfortable moving ahead with an engagement. Establishing a budget at the start of an engagement can do this.

A budget is only an estimate of what's going to happen. However, creating a budget shows clients that their lawyer is sensitive to their needs and gives them a sense of what to expect.

Budgets should use common sense and realism concerning the amount of time it will take to complete any work and err on the side of caution. They have one goal: save the client from surprises.

Alternative fee arrangements are often another form of "guarantee" when they are tied to a specific result. A contingency fee, in which the lawyer gets a stated percentage of the value recovered for the client, is the most prominent example. Others include a flat or fixed fee (which is determined and stipulated in the engagement letter, before the assignment even begins, and will not vary no matter how much time the lawyer expends or what the result); and premium pricing (in which the lawyer secures the right to add on an additional amount beyond a stated fee if the result exceeds client expectations as defined in the agreement).

These billing alternatives reflect a highly interactive process: The lawyer takes a direct financial stake in achieving the desired results, and the client plays an active role in deciding whether those results have been met. Again, the result is greater assurance and risk avoidance for the client.

It's only a short step from this level to "satisfaction guaranteed," and there are firms that have affirmatively embraced such an approach. Chicago's Ungaretti & Harris for well over a decade has offered clients this assurance: "We cannot guarantee outcomes; we do guarantee your satisfaction with our service. If we do not perform to your satisfaction, inform us promptly. We will resolve the issue to your satisfaction, even if it means reducing your legal fees."

The Summit Law Group, based in Seattle, offers a variation on guaranteeing satisfaction by providing clients with its "value adjustment line" on invoices: "We empower each of our customers with the right to adjust our billing, upward or downward, based on our customer's perception of the value received, not ours."

Bottom line: There is no ethical problem when you guarantee that people will be satisfied working with you and with your service. Of course, don't make this guarantee if you aren't prepared to stand behind (and in front of) your effort.

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