Naturally, your clients think your fees are high. They may not recognize the amount of work you do behind the scenes or understand the complexities of practicing law. They do not appreciate your overhead, expensive resources and other costs relevant to your clients’ cases for which you ask your clients to reimburse you.

If you are fortunate, the criticisms about your fees may amount to little more than typical grumbling about the cost of anything — the rising price of gas, milk, rent and tickets to professional sports events. On the other hand, when a client files a complaint alleging unreasonable fees, it may lead to sanctions that could impact your career and your California legal practice.

Adding up your fee

Like all attorneys, you are subject to California’s adaptation of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The ABA’s rules include specific factors that may help you determine whether your fee is realistic, for example:

  • How much time will you spend on the case?
  • How much effort will it take you to resolve the matter?
  • How complex are the questions related to the legal dispute?
  • How much of your skill will the case require?
  • What are the customary fees for such services in your area?

It is possible that to obtain an award or settlement for one client will require months of investigation, various discovery methods and skillful negotiation. For another client to obtain a similar award, you may have to do little more than present the appropriate documents for signatures. To charge the same fee for both clients may be a sanctionable offense in the eyes of a disciplinary board.

Is your fee negotiable?

Your client may have a legitimate concern about the amount you charge for services. Your willingness to review the fees in good faith may go far in protecting you from potential sanctions. In fact, one survey showed that few lawyers receive disciplinary action when they charge reasonable fees in good faith. However, when attorneys charge fees that do not comply with the ABA’s rules, disciplinary boards tend to search for aggravating factors, including fraud, misuse of funds and other misconduct.

If you feel your fees are reasonable but you are facing an inquiry related to a client complaint, you may have a difficult time proving you acted in good faith. You may benefit from the aid of an attorney experienced in administrative and disciplinary matters.