The most basic yet essential part of representation is the fee agreement where the lawyer outlines the scope of the representation of the client. At its essence, the fee agreement is a contract and as such governed by the laws off contract as it relates to the professional obligations of an attorney to the client. Yet, given the importance of the fee agreement in the scheme of representing the client, attorneys often relegate this most important document to boilerplate language with one-size fits all language. As attorneys we often tell our clients to read what they’re signing, but in the case of the fee agreement are we really reading and understanding what we are asking our clients to sign?
My clients are attorneys, and when I enter into an agreement to research and write a motion or appellate brief, I am specific as to the scope of the representation so that they understand exactly what I will and won’t do. However, when I do represent a non-attorney client it is often in a limited fashion. It is at this point when dealing with a non-attorney that I sit down and carefully craft a fee agreement that is unique to the individual. When crafting a fee agreement such as this I ask myself several questions:
- What is the client’s expectations in this representation, and does he/she understand the limits to the representation?
- What are my limits to the representation? Does he/she understand what I am willing and not willing to do?
- Does the client understand the terms of compensation for my services and what their obligations are?
- Have I addressed the terms of the representation in clear, concise language so that there is no ambiguity about the terms of the agreement?
- In the case of the particular client, are there personality traits that I need to take into consideration that could affect the representation, and have I addressed them in the agreement?
While the practice of law is demanding and time precious, it behooves us to take a hard look at the fee agreement we are asking a client to sign and analyze whether it will fit a specific situation or whether it needs to be adjusted to meet the particular demands that a client may present. Most attorneys would never advise a client to use boilerplate agreements to enter into real property transactions given the unique nature it possesses. Given that each client is a unique person and presents a unique representation, is it not our responsibility to ask ourselves whether the agreement we are asking that client to sign is not only a fit for that client’s particular needs, but also whether that agreement is a fit the type of representation we are willing to provide?
The answer to that question is the difference between a smooth representation where the client’s expectations are met or a difficult representation where both the client and attorney have a bad experience.