The Perils of Unsigned Fee Agreements and Engagement Letters

Does this scenario sound familiar?

On November 1 you meet with Jane Client.  You have a good feeling about Jane and her case.  She is definitely someone you want to represent.  After the meeting, you send Jane a standard fee agreement/engagement letter.  You tell Jane that you will need documents and additional information to proceed.  You also explain that Jane must establish a retainer of $2500 before you begin work on her case.  On November 3, Jane sends you an email with the required documents.  Four days later, she provides the additional information you requested.  On November 8 you and Jane speak over the phone. On November 10 Jane sends you a check for $2500.

Clients Like Jane are Tempting…

Jane is a very appealing client.  You have good rapport and confidence in her case. She is cooperative, responsive, and paid your retainer.  So what’s not to like?  If you proceed to represent Jane (or let’s be honest: if you continue representing Jane), you do so under substantial risk.  How can that be?  Let’s explore some of the issues that come to mind:

The Perils of Unsigned Fee Agreements and Engagement Letters

  • No enforceable written contract.  I wouldn’t want to be without one.  I’m not saying all hope is lost collection-wise, but you certainly have a far tougher row to hoe without the client’s signature on a written agreement.  Fee agreements should always be in writing, countersigned by the client, regardless of the practice area.
  • No proof of scope of representation.  This could lead to several problems: demands by the client that you provide additional, unintended services; liability exposure for unanticipated (but arguably related) services; or inability to withdraw as attorney of record before an agency or tribunal.
  • Voidable fees in contingent cases.  ORS 20.340(1)(a) provides that all contingent fee agreements “shall be written in plain and simple language reasonably believed to be understandable by the plaintiff.”  In addition, a model explanation of the contingent fee agreement is required.  ORS 20.340(1)(b).  “Any contingent fee agreement entered into on or after September 26, 1987, that does not comply with the requirements of subsection (1) of this section is voidable. [Formerly 9.400]”
  • Ethics complaints related to flat or fixed fees paid in advance.  Oregon RPC 1.15 and 1.5, together with Oregon Formal Opinion 2005-151, describe a specific set of conditions for “earned upon receipt fees,” the most basic of which is that such arrangements must be in writing.  No exceptions.

Fixing the Problem

Since Jane is otherwise an ideal client it should be easy to pick the phone and have a conversation about the necessity of signing and returning your fee agreement and engagement letter. It is possible she simply overlooked your paperwork.  You may also learn that your fee agreement or engagement letter is too long or too complicated.

  1. If you are asking the client to sign an “earned upon receipt” fee agreement after the fact, consult with private ethics counsel or contact OSB General Counsel before proceeding: “Without a clear written agreement between a lawyer and a client that fees paid in advance are earned on receipt, such funds must be considered client property and are, therefore, afforded the protections imposed by Oregon RPC 1.15-1. In re Biggs, 318 Or at 293 (discussing former DR 9-101). If there is a written agreement with the client that complies with the requirements of Oregon RPC 1.5(c)(3), the funds belong to the lawyer and may not be put in the lawyer’s client trust account. If no such agreement exists, the funds must be placed into the trust account and can only be withdrawn as earned. See, e.g., In re Hedges, 313 Or at 623–24; OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-149.” OSB Formal Opinion 2005-151.
  2. Going forward, streamline your engagement/fee agreement procedure.
    1. Give the client a heads-up about the importance of signing and returning your agreement/engagement letter during the client meeting.  Let the client know to expect the letter, what it will say, and why it must be signed before you can proceed.  Encourage clients to call with any questions or concerns.
    2. Consider presenting the fee agreement or engagement letter to the client as part of the client meeting [not my personal favorite, but it is an option] – or – experiment with eSigning.  Services like DocuSign are simple, easy, and secure.  Another option?  A click-wrap agreement.
    3. If you use surface mail, consider enclosing a stamped, self-addressed return envelope).  Be sure to include an extra copy of the agreement for the client’s records.
    4. Set a date to follow-up with the client about returning your agreement and enter the follow-up date in your calendaring system.  If the agreement is not returned by the date specified, contact the client.
    5. Solicit client feedback about other changes you can make to improve return of signed fee agreements and engagement letters.

Make it Easier for You and the Client

Clients want agreements that are short, simple, and understandable.  This presents a challenge because we are tempted to cover every contingency in great detail. Odds are your fee agreement has room for improvement when it comes to use of Plain English, and room to spare when it comes to verbosity.

Consider this option:  Instead of devoting a page of your fee agreement to the subject of billing, enclose a separate one page bullet list of “Billing Practices” describing when/where/how you bill. While technically a “cheat” (you just added another page), it will shorten the actual agreement while giving the client the information they need in a more understandable format.

Or if you prefer not to add another physical page, send the client a link to the billing practices section of your website.  (Which can be a stand-alone page not visible in your navigation menu.)

This concept – enclosing a bullet list or providing a link to content on your website – can be applied to other issues covered in a typical fee agreement/engagement letter. Using this approach should not jeopardize the viability of your contract or collection of accounts if you use language that incorporates the referenced practices as part of your agreement.  Be sure to use effective dates on any enclosures or web pages and retain links to archived firm policies or procedures. If you choose to transition content in this manner, do you own research on enforceability/viability.

Final Thoughts: Learn More!

Learn more about fee agreements at the upcoming CLE, “Fee Agreements – Ethical Dos and Don’ts,” on January 18, 2017.  Start the new year off right!

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

 

 

Best Free Productivity Apps for the iPhone and iPad

Last week we took a look at nine free iOS apps to help you track expenses and mileage, organize bills, calculate on the go, budget, make smart purchases, and track packages. This week we focus on free productivity apps for project management, paperless meetings, better communication, security, task management, file sharing and storage, workflow, video conferencing, scanning, PDFs, eSigning, notetaking, sketching, languages, and business travel.

Project Management

Trello is the free, flexible, and visual way to organize anything with anyone. Forget lengthy email threads, out-of-date spreadsheets, sticky notes, and clunky software for managing your projects. Trello lets you see everything about your project in a single glance.  Compatible with Apple Watch.

Paperless Meetings

minute-iconUse Minute to conduct easy paperless meetings. Instantly invite attendees, turn agendas into meetings, import and share documents from Dropbox, Evernote, email, etc. Collaborate on notes, to-dos, decisions, and documents. Delegate tasks to attendees. After the meeting read and revise notes and export meeting minutes.

 Better Communication

Rather than worrying about your data allowance or cell signal, WhatsApp lets you send messages over Wi-Fi or a mobile data connection instead. Send and receive photos free over Wi-Fi* with no size restrictions. (*Or if you have unlimited mobile data.)

Security

1passwordKeep track of passwords, security codes, and alarm codes in one place with 1Password. Search to find what you’re looking for on any connected device. Save and fill passwords, credit cards, and addresses into webpages with a single click. Keep your data safe and encrypted. Unlimited installations with paid subscription. Compatible with Apple Watch. (Free 30 day trial; $5 per month subscription.)

Task Management

todoist-iconAdd, complete, and re-schedule tasks from any device, even offline with Todoist. Automatic 24/7 sync. Create sub-tasks and sub-projects, set priorities, and color-code projects. Share projects, assign tasks, and add comments all within the app. Instant notifications will keep you up-to-date whenever changes are made. Compatible with Apple Watch.

easilydoEasilyDo connects to online services, like your email, calendar, and Facebook, then looks for things it can help you get done. For example, it might ask you if you’d like to add contact details of someone who emailed you to your address book. Or it might spot an upcoming birthday. (Best for personal use.)

File Sharing and Storage

Transfer files instantly across Mac, iOS, Android, and Windows platforms using simple drag and drop with Instashare Air Drop. Transfer any file type (MP3, images, PDF, slide decks, docs, and more). Any size. Completely secure – files are transferred only between devices – no copy is kept in the cloud. Supports older devices: back to iPhone 3Gs and iPad. No need to register, just open the app, and start sharing. No email account, no passwords required.

hightailUse Hightail (formerly YouSendIt) to upload files to a shared project area called a Space then name it and add context or project goals. Solves the problem of oversized email attachments. Upload to Hightail instead and send your recipients a link. Supports PDF, docx, PPT, png, and other file formats. Documents can be secured with an access code.  (Free 250 MG storage.)

Workflow

Use Clips to clip from anything from anywhere: quotes, links, stories, images. Ideal for users who write a lot on their iPhone and iPad or hate switching between apps to copy-and-paste. The custom keyboard doesn’t log any of your input and requires no use of the Internet. Sync across all iOS devices through your private iCloud account with the Pro version.  Compatible with Apple Watch.

ifttt“If this, then that.” Use ifttt to automate just about anything: create events in Google Calendar with only a few taps; keep your team in sync with scheduled reminders for Slack; catalog important email from your inbox in an Evernote notebook to go over later; sync files quickly. Ifttt makes two separate apps work together!

Video Conferencing

zoomZoom offers quality video and audio conferencing – available for mobile devices and on the desktop.  Screen share apps and photos, send files, annotate, mute attendees (or not), easily invite phone, email, or company contacts.  (Free for 50-person or less meetings that last no longer than 40 minutes.)

Scanner and Whiteboard Converter

CamScanner turns photos of sketches, receipts, sticky notes, and whiteboard notes into editable files. Make digital copies of printed documents, business cards, or posters and trim them precisely. Printed text is automatically recognized (using OCR) so you can search for words in images and copy and edit them.  200MB free storage.

PDFs and eSigning

Adobe Acrobat Reader DC is a PDF viewer made specifically for the iPhone. Take a picture of your handwritten signature on your mobile device, and then sync it to sign PDFs at your desk or on the go. Annotate PDFs or mark-up files.  Draw on the screen with the drawing tool. Store, access, and share files from your Dropbox account.  (In-app purchases may apply.)

signnowUse SignNow to sign documents with your finger. Fill and complete PDF, Word, or rich text documents. Open documents from your inbox, Dropbox, and more. Easily collect signatures from multiple people. Secured with bank quality encryption.  (Sign up to five documents per month at no charge.)

Notetaking and Sketching

Use Paper 53 to draw on photos or quickly spotlight details. Sketch diagrams, charts, and drawings. Want to add titles to notes?  Swipe left. Want to add a checklist? Swipe right.

Learn Languages

duolingoUse the free Duolingo app to read, listen, and speak Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Irish, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and English.  Learn languages in bite-sized lessons: Apple’s iPhone App of the Year.  (In-app upgrades available.)

Business Travel

Hopper hopper-iconconstantly monitors prices to find great deals on airfare. Shows you the best time to go, predicts the right time to book flights, and where to buy.  Includes personalized tips.  Promises savings of 40% or more on your next flight.  A best app of the year winner in 2015.

Input your itinerary and GateGuru will automatically provides you with the check-in airport terminal, airport weather, gate arrival and departure information, real-time flight status, estimated TSA security wait times, airport food and amenity information, airport maps and tips, last minute rental car bookings.

All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis

30 Twitter Tips on Marketing, Social Media, and Technology

And now my final installment of news that may have passed you by in June.  The best of the best on marketing, social media, and technology posted on Twitter last month:

Marketing and Social Media

Technology

The Paperless Office

Privacy and Security

Cloud Computing

Dictation

Apps

  • Fastcase Tip 23: Utilize the extended toolbar at top and the ‘jump to most relevant paragraph’ option to save you time! (via @fastcase)
  • Quick Look: New Fastcase Android App by @catherinereach (RT @danpinnington RT @JoanHFeldman RT @attnyatwork)

Tech Tips

Best Free Software for Signing PDFs

From our friends at Lifehacker  –

What’s the best free software for signing PDFs? OS X Lion has this feature built into Preview. Nitro PDF is the way to go for Windows. Sign-N-Send was our go-to free option for the iPhone, but now it costs $5. EasySign, however, is still free. The creatively-named Fill and Sign PDF Forms is the way to go on Android.