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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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Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct

Comment - Rule 1.04

1. A lawyer in good conscience should not charge or collect more than a reasonable fee, although he may charge less or no fee at all. The determination of the reasonableness of a fee, or of the range of reasonableness, can be a difficult question, and a standard of "reasonableness" is too vague and uncertain to be an appropriate standard in a disciplinary action. For this reason, paragraph (a) adopts, for disciplinary purposes only, a clearer standard: the lawyer is subject to discipline for an illegal fee or an unconscionable fee. Paragraph (a) defines an unconscionable fee in terms of the reasonableness of the fee but in a way to eliminate factual disputes as to the fee's reasonableness. The Rule's "unconscionable" standard, however, does not preclude use of the "reasonableness" standard of paragraph (b) in other settings.

Basis or Rate of Fee

2. When the lawyer has regularly represented a client, they ordinarily will have evolved an understanding concerning the basis or rate of the fee. If, however, the basis or rate of fee being charged to a regularly represented client differs from the understanding that has evolved, the lawyer should so advise the client. In a new client-lawyer relationship, an understanding as to the fee should be promptly established. It is not necessary 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, in order to identify the factors that may be taken into account in finally fixing the fee. When developments occur during the representation that render an earlier estimate substantially inaccurate, a revised estimate should be provided to the client. A written statement concerning the fee reduces the possibility of misunderstanding, and when the lawyer has not regularly represented the client it is preferable for the basis or rate of the fee to be communicated to the client in writing. Furnishing the client with a simple memorandum or a copy of the lawyer's customary fee schedule is sufficient if the basis or rate of the fee is set forth. In the case of a contingent fee, a written agreement is mandatory.

Types of Fees

3. Historically lawyers have determined what fees to charge by a variety of methods. Commonly employed are percentage fees and contingent fees (which may vary in accordance with the amount at stake or recovered), hourly rates, and flat fee arrangements, or combinations thereof.

4. The determination of a proper fee requires consideration of the interests of both client and lawyer. The determination of reasonableness requires consideration of all relevant circumstances, including those stated in paragraph (b). Obviously, in a particular situation not all of the factors listed in paragraph (b) may be relevant and factors not listed could be relevant. The fees of a lawyer will vary according to many factors, including the time required, the lawyer's experience, ability and reputation, the nature of the employment, the responsibility involved, and the results obtained.

5. When there is a doubt whether a particular fee arrangement is consistent with the client's best interest, the lawyer should discuss with the client alternative bases for the fee and explain their implications.

6. Once a fee arrangement is agreed to, a lawyer should not handle the matter so as to further the lawyer's financial interests to the detriment of the client. For example, a lawyer should not abuse a fee arrangement based primarily on hourly charges by using wasteful procedures.

Unconscionable Fees

7. Two principal circumstances combine to make it difficult to determine whether a particular fee is unconscionable within the disciplinary test provided by paragraph (a) of this Rule. The first is the subjectivity of a number of the factors relied on to determine the reasonableness of fees under paragraph (b). Because those factors do not permit more than an approximation of a range of fees that might be found reasonable in any given case, there is a corresponding degree of uncertainty in determining whether a given fee is unconscionable. Secondly, fee arrangements normally are made at the outset of representation, a time when many uncertainties and contingencies exist, while claims of unconscionability are made in hindsight when the contingencies have been resolved. The "unconscionability" standard adopts that difference in perspective and requires that a lawyer be given the benefit of any such uncertainties for disciplinary purposes only. Except in very unusual situations, therefore, the circumstances at the time a fee arrangement is made should control in determining a question of unconscionability.

8. Two factors in otherwise borderline cases might indicate a fee may be unconscionable. The first is overreaching by a lawyer, particularly of a client who was unusually susceptible to such overreaching. The second is a failure of the lawyer to give at the outset a clear and accurate explanation of how a fee was to be calculated. For example, a fee arrangement negotiated at arm's length with an experienced business client would rarely be subject to question. On the other hand, a fee arrangement with an uneducated or unsophisticated individual having no prior experience in such matters should be more carefully scrutinized for overreaching. While the fact that a client was at a marked disadvantage in bargaining with a lawyer over fees will not make a fee unconscionable, application of the disciplinary test may require some consideration of the personal circumstances of the individuals involved.

Fees in Family Law Matters

9. Contingent and percentage fees in family law matters may tend to promote divorce and may be inconsistent with a lawyer's obligation to encourage reconciliation. Such fee arrangements also may tend to create a conflict of interest between lawyer and client regarding the appraisal of assets obtained for client. See also Rule 1.08(h). In certain family law matters, such as child custody and adoption, no res is created to fund a fee. Because of the human relationships involved and the unique character of the proceedings, contingent fee arrangements in domestic relations cases are rarely justified.

Division of Fees

10. A division of fees 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 fees 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 or associating lawyer initially retained by the client and a trial specialist, but it applies in all cases in which two or more lawyers are representing a single client in the same matter, and without regard to whether litigation is involved. Paragraph (f) permits the lawyers to divide a fee either on the basis of the proportion of services they render or if each lawyer assumes joint responsibility for the representation.

11. Contingent fee agreements must be in a writing signed by the client and must otherwise comply with paragraph (d) of this Rule.

12. A division of a fee based on the proportion of services rendered by two or more lawyers contemplates that each lawyer is performing substantial legal services on behalf of the client with respect to the matter. In particular, it requires that each lawyer who participates in the fee have performed services beyond those involved in initially seeking to acquire and being engaged by the client. There must be a reasonable correlation between the amount or value of services rendered and responsibility assumed, and the share of the fee to be received. However, if each participating lawyer performs substantial legal services on behalf of the client, the agreed division should control even though the division is not directly proportional to actual work performed. If a division of fee is to be based on the proportion of services rendered, the arrangement may provide that the allocation not be made until the end of the representation. When the allocation is deferred until the end of the representation, the terms of the arrangement must include the basis by which the division will be made.

13. Joint responsibility for the representation entails ethical and perhaps financial responsibility for the representation. The ethical responsibility assumed requires that a referring or associating lawyer make reasonable efforts to assure adequacy of representation and to provide adequate client communication. Adequacy of representation requires that the referring or associating lawyer conduct a reasonable investigation of the client’s legal matter and refer the matter to a lawyer whom the referring or associating lawyer reasonably believes is competent to handle it. See Rule 1.01. Adequate attorney-client communication requires that a referring or associating lawyer monitor the matter throughout the representation and ensure that the client is informed of those matters that come to that lawyer’s attention and that a reasonable lawyer would believe the client should be aware. See Rule 1.03. Attending all depositions and hearings, or requiring that copies of all pleadings and correspondence be provided a referring or associating lawyer, is not necessary in order to meet the monitoring requirement proposed by this rule. These types of activities may increase the transactional costs, which ultimately the client will bear, and unless some benefit will be derived by the client, they should be avoided. The monitoring requirement is only that the referring lawyer be reasonably informed of the matter, respond to client questions, and assist the handling lawyer when necessary. Any referral or association of other counsel should be made based solely on the client’s best interest.

14. In the aggregate, the minimum activities that must be undertaken by referring or associating lawyers pursuant to an arrangement for a division of fees are substantially greater than those assumed by a lawyer who forwarded a matter to other counsel, undertook no ongoing obligations with respect to it, and yet received a portion of the handling lawyer’s fee once the matter was concluded, as was permitted under the prior version of this rule. Whether such activities, or any additional activities that a lawyer might agree to undertake, suffice to make one lawyer participating in such an arrangement responsible for the professional misconduct of another lawyer who is participating in it and, if so, to what extent, are intended to be resolved by Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, ch. 33, or other applicable law.

15. A client must consent in writing to the terms of the arrangement prior to the time of the association or referral proposed. For this consent to be effective, the client must have been advised of at least the key features of that arrangement. Those essential terms, which are specified in subparagraph (f)(2), are 1) the identity of all lawyers or law firms who will participate in the fee-sharing agreement, 2) whether fees will be divided based on the proportion of services performed or by lawyers agreeing to assume joint responsibility for the representation, and 3) the share of the fee that each lawyer or law firm will receive or the basis on which the division will be made if the division is based on proportion of service performed. Consent by a client or prospective client to the referral to or association of other counsel, made prior to any actual such referral or association but without knowledge of the information specified in subparagraph (f)(2), does not constitute sufficient client confirmation within the meaning of this rule. The referring or associating lawyer or any other lawyer who employs another lawyer to assist in the representation has the primary duty to ensure full disclosure and compliance with this rule.

16. Paragraph (g) facilitates the enforcement of the requirements of paragraph (f). It does so by providing that agreements that authorize an attorney either to refer a person’s case to another lawyer, or to associate other counsel in the handling of a client’s case, and that actually result in such a referral or association with counsel in a different law firm from the one entering into the agreement, must be confirmed by an arrangement between the person and the lawyers involved that conforms to paragraph (f). As noted there, that arrangement must be presented to and agreed to by the person before the referral or association between the lawyers involved occurs. See subparagraph (f)(2). Because paragraph (g) refers to the party whose matter is involved as a “person” rather than as a “client,” it is not possible to evade its requirements by having a referring lawyer not formally enter into an attorney-client relationship with the person involved before referring that person’s matter to other counsel. Paragraph (g) does provide, however, for recovery in quantum meruit in instances where its requirements are not met. See subparagraphs (g)(1) and (g)(2).

17. What should be done with any otherwise agreed-to fee that is forfeited in whole or in part due to a lawyer’s failure to comply with paragraph (g) is not resolved by these rules.

18. Subparagraph (f)(3) requires that the aggregate fee charged to clients in connection with a given matter by all of the lawyers involved meet the standards of paragraph (a) — that is, not be unconscionable.

Fee Disputes and Determinations

19. If a procedure has been established for resolution of fee disputes, such as an arbitration or mediation procedure established by a bar association, 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, or when a class or a person is entitled to recover a reasonable attorney’s fee as part of the measure of damages. All involved lawyers should comply with any prescribed procedures.