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End-of-life notice: American Legal Ethics Library

As of March 1, 2013, the Legal Information Institute is no longer maintaining the information in the American Legal Ethics Library. It is no longer possible for us to maintain it at a level of completeness and accuracy given its staffing needs. It is very possible that we will revive it at a future time. At this point, it is in need of a complete technological renovation and reworking of the "correspondent firm" model which successfully sustained it for many years.

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Comments to Rhode Island Disciplilnary Rules of Professional Conduct

Comment - Rule 1.5

Basis or Rate of Fee -- Written Fee Information -- Billing

[1] When the lawyer has regularly represented a client, the lawyer and the client ordinarily will have evolved an understanding concerning the basis or rate of the fee. In a new client-lawyer relationship, where the client is to be obligated directly to the lawyer for the payment of fees, an understanding about the fee should be established promptly. In those cases, the lawyer must communicate the basis or rate of the fee in writing to the client. It is preferable that the lawyer provide written fee information to the client before the representation is undertaken. In some instances, however, it is sufficient if the lawyer communicates the basis of the fee to the client in writing after the representation has been commenced, so long as the lawyer does so promptly thereafter. This is particularly true in the criminal practice, where the lawyer and the client may have their first communication while the client is incarcerated or immediately prior to a court hearing. Under such circumstances, it may be impractical if not impossible for the lawyer to provide the client with a written statement of the basis for the fee before the representation commences. The lawyer should, however, communicate the basis for the fee to the client orally before the representation is undertaken and must communicate the fee information in writing to the client promptly thereafter.

[2] The fee information may be provided to the client in a fee agreement, engagement letter, or other suitable form. It is not necessary for the lawyer to recite all the factors that underlie the basis of the fee, but only those that are directly involved in its computation. It is sufficient, for example, to state that the basic rate is an hourly charge or a fixed amount or an estimated amount, or to identify the factors that may be taken into account in finally fixing the fee. If the lawyer has provided the client with an estimated fee and developments occur during the representation that render an earlier estimate substantially inaccurate, a revised estimate should be provided to the client. Where a lawyer is required to provide the client with written fee information, in addition to the fee information the lawyer should inform the client regarding the client's obligations with respect to costs and expenses.

[3] The obligation to provide written fee information does not apply to lawyers representing clients who are not paying fees to the lawyer or where the lawyer is to be paid by a third-party. A typical example is in insurance defense practice, where the lawyer represents the insured but is paid by the insurer. Under such or similar circumstances, the lawyer may not be obligated to inform the client of the specifics of the fee arrangement the lawyer has with the insurer. The lawyer's obligations under such circumstances, however, are controlled by Rule 1.8(f).

[4] The lawyer should provide the client with a billing regarding the fees, costs, and expenses incurred on a quarterly basis at a minimum, unless in the written fee information the lawyer and client have agreed to a different billing schedule. The billing should provide information sufficient for the client to determine the basis for the particular fee charged.

Terms of Payment

[5] A lawyer may require advance payment of a fee, but is obliged to return any unearned portion. See Rule 1.17(d). A lawyer may accept property in payment for services, such as an ownership interest in an enterprise, providing this does not involve acquisition of a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of the litigation contrary to Rule 1.8(j). However, a fee paid in property instead of money may be subject to special scrutiny because it involves questions concerning both the value of the services and the lawyer's special knowledge of the value of the property.

[6] An agreement may not be made whose terms might induce the lawyer improperly to curtail services for the client or perform them in a way contrary to the client's interest. For example, a lawyer should not enter into an agreement whereby services are to be provided only up to a stated amount when it is foreseeable that more extensive services probably will be required, unless the situation is adequately explained to the client. Otherwise, the client might have to bargain for further assistance in the midst of a proceeding or transaction. However, it is proper to define the extent of services in light of the client's ability to pay. A lawyer should not exploit a fee arrangement based primarily on hourly charges by using wasteful procedures. When there is doubt whether a contingent fee is consistent with the client's best interest, the lawyer should offer the client alternative bases [sic] for the fee and explain their implications. Applicable law may impose limitations on contingent fees, such as a ceiling on the percentage.

Division of Fee

[7] A division of fee is a single billing to a client covering the fee of two or more lawyers who are not in the same firm. A division of fee facilitates association of more than one lawyer in a matter in which neither alone could serve the client as well, and most often is used when the fee is contingent and the division is between a referring lawyer and a trial specialist. Paragraph (e) permits the lawyers to divide a fee on either the basis of the proportion of services they render or by agreement between the participating lawyers if all assume responsibility for the representation as a whole and the client is advised and does not object. It does not require disclosure to the client of the share that each lawyer is to receive. Joint responsibility for the representation entails the obligations stated in Rule 5.1 for purposes of the matter involved.

Disputes over Fees

[8] If a procedure has been established for resolution of fee disputes, such as an arbitration or mediation procedure established by the bar, the lawyer should conscientiously consider submitting to it. Law may prescribe a procedure for determining a lawyer's fee, for example, in representation of an executor or administrator, a class or a person entitled to a reasonable fee as part of the measure of damages. The lawyer entitled to such a fee and a lawyer representing another party concerned with the fee should comply with the prescribed procedure.