Call it an alternative fee agreement (AFA) or a hybrid fee agreement (HFA). Lawyers are looking for creative ways to appeal to clients who are resisting the traditional hourly rate approach.
In this classic reboot, we examine AFA and HFA options and how you can ethically deploy them in your firm.
Employment Law HFA
Consider the employment law case that is less than a slam dunk. You could put in many hours only to see no fee. Ah, the life of a contingent fee practitioner.
Or is it? One creative lawyer decided to offer his client a hybrid fee arrangement: a reduced hourly rate of $100 per hour with a 25% contingent kicker in the event of a recovery. (Lower than the “going” contingent rate of 33%.) If the client agrees, and your fee agreement passes the test below, there is nothing wrong with such an arrangement.
Family Law HFA
Among family law practitioners – who are forbidden to take a contingent fee – a popular hybrid fee arrangement incorporates a flat fee earned upon receipt with an hourly rate that kicks in at a specific stage. The flat fee compensates the lawyer for work done in the early stages of a case: initial consultation; file opening; drafting and finalizing the Petition for Dissolution (or preparing a response); serving the opposing party; drafting and serving the first request for production of documents. The flat fee could encompass additional services – each lawyer can determine where the cut-off should be – but charging a flat fee for time spent from the first consultation through initial discovery is predictable and easy to do. Again, if the client agrees and your fee agreement passes the test below, this is a perfectly fine arrangement.
Does your HFA or AFA Pass the Test?
To create an ethical alternative fee arrangement, apply the rule of the 5 “C’s:”
- Common sense
- Can’t be excessive
If a fee agreement is ambiguous, it must be construed against the lawyer. Cf. OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-15.” Oregon State Bar (OSB) Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-124.
If you decide to experiment with your fee agreements, strive to be as clear as possible. With the employment law scenario, the main challenge is the math. Conceptually the idea is pretty clear. With the family law scenario, the number one problem is failing to explain what the client is “buying” with the initial flat fee earned upon receipt. Just how far does the $1,000 initial payment go and when does the $200 per hour rate kick in?
Consider all possibilities. A good example in the employment law context: if you have the right to recover attorneys fees, address this in your agreement. See OSB Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-69 [Attorney fee awards are the property of the client unless “the terms of the fee agreement expressly provided that Lawyer was entitled to the greater of the fee computed thereunder or the court-awarded amount.”]
Fee agreements should address all conceivable outcomes.
- If your client is entering into a contingent fee agreement, he or she must execute the “Oregon State Bar Model Explanation of Contingent Fee Agreement” before signing an agreement with you.
- If you are charging a flat fee earned upon receipt, read and comply fully with Oregon RPC 1.5, Oregon RPC 1.15, and OSB Formal Ethics Opinion 2005-151.
May I also suggest reviewing this excellent article: Helen Hierschbiel, “Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee?,” Oregon State Bar Bulletin (November 2011). Practice Tip: flat fee earned upon receipt fee agreements must include special “disclosure” language set out in Oregon RPC 1.5.
Don’t torture yourself or the client trying to figure out the math of your hybrid fee agreement. Once you’ve developed a sample, run it by your next door neighbor or another lay person. Ideally, run it by several nonlawyer friends. Does it make sense to them? If not, go back to the drawing board. Remember: “If a fee agreement is ambiguous, it must be construed against the lawyer. Cf. OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-15.” Oregon State Bar (OSB) Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-124.
Can’t be Excessive
“The Oregon State Bar Legal Ethics Committee has also said that split contingent/hourly fee agreements do not automatically violate the rules of professional conduct. See OSB Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-54. However, the committee cautions lawyers that a fee that appears to be lawful at the outset, may turn out to be clearly excessive in the end….” Helen Hierschbiel, “Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee?,” Oregon State Bar Bulletin (November 2011).
All fees are subject to a look-back at the end of the case. The employment law HFA is more likely to be challenged than the family law HFA. In the employment law scenario, tabulate the total hourly fees charged to the client and your contingent fee share of the recovery. Add the two together. Do these exceed the standard contingent rate of one-third? If they do, you may be on perilous ground. Helen’s article, Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee? discusses all the factors that go into gauging the reasonableness of a fee.
Developing alternative fee agreements that are ethically compliant and legally enforceable can be done – don’t get discouraged. Check out the ABA book: Alternative Fees for Business Lawyers and Their Clients. If you are an Oregon lawyer but do not belong to the ABA, use the Professional Liability Fund discount code at checkout to save money: OSBPLF.
[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]
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