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Be conscious of unconscionable fees

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct, followed by most states, hold that lawyers should refrain from charging their clients “unreasonable” fees. However, as you well know, California goes its own way when it comes to professional conduct rules.

Rule 1.5 of the California Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that lawyers may not charge “unconscionable” or “illegal” fees. Naturally, the rule fails to establish a bright line, which can be a bane or a boon to the legal practitioner, depending on which side you’re on.

Factors used to determine unconscionability

Fortunately, the rule provides some guidance in determining whether a legal fee is unconscionable. Some of the factors that a disciplinary board may look at include:

  • Whether the fee involved some degree of fraud on the part of the lawyer
  • Whether there was a failure to disclose material facts
  • The amount of the fee in relation to the services performed
  • Time limitations, either imposed by the client or the circumstances surrounding the case

Several other factors may also be used to determine whether a fee is unconscionable.

What happens if a client complains?

Nearly everyone complains about the high cost of legal services. The reasoning behind attorneys’ fees can be inscrutable to those who don’t practice law. So, what happens if a client complains about your final bill?

The good news is a client’s complaint on its own isn’t enough to initiate disciplinary action. However, evidence of overreach, illegality, or fraud may trigger an investigation by the California Bar. Absent any evidence, you may still have to attend arbitration proceedings to resolve a client’s complaint. In either case, it is worth seeking legal counsel to help you protect your reputation and your career.

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