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Is it ethical for an attorney to give vague answers as this?

Los Angeles, CA |
Filed under: Professional ethics

My lawyer is doing this divorce case for me. I will discuss this with him but I want to get an outside opinion. We had a hearing which he decided to take off calendar in lieu for going in another direction which he said would be cost effective and resolve the case quickly. When I asked how much would this new direction cost me, he said very little or no cost. When I asked point blank for the cost, I was again told very little, keep the faith. He proceeded with this new direction, writing some type of judgment and invoiced me $16,000.00. The hearing would have cost me only $2,000.00 of his time plus mileage. I refuse to pay this bill. Is this standard business practice from an attorney and is this ethical? I did ask for the cost.

Attorney Answers 3


  1. A dissolution usually involves multiple court appearances. I would not assume that the hearing you write about would have resolved all issues so that your only further legal fees would have been $2000 as you seem to have assumed.

    Without knowing all the facts, and reading between the lines, I assume you attorney meant that it would cost you very little or nothing *more* than the original plan. That could be a truthful statement.

    Unless you have a flat fee agreement with your attorney, it is impossible for an attorney who charges by the hour to offer any more than vague answers to questions such as the one you posed. The terms of representation are governed by your written fee agreement. I see nothing unethical in your statement of facts.

    I urge you to discuss this with your attorney. You have the option to refuse to pay his bill and/or institute fee arbitration. Your attorney has the option to withdraw from the case after complying with the Rules of Professional Conduct and to sue you for fees. Hopefully, you will come to a meeting of the minds and be able to resolve this dispute amicably. Good luck.

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  2. Without more facts, there are too many variables to say whether your attorney fell short of an ethical duty. When you hired your attorney, both of you should have entered into a fee agreement, and that agreement should have given you a reasonable idea of the costs you would incur, or at least how to calculate it.

    While fee agreements do not per say have to be in writing, a written fee agreement is required where it's foreseeable that the matter will cost more than $1,000. [Bus. & Prof. Code §6148.] The written fee agreement must explain how the attorney will calculate his or her fee and put the client on notice of other standard charges that might arise in the representation. [Bus. & Prof. Code §6148(a)(1)].

    California Code of Professional Responsibility 4-200 governs "Fees for Legal Services" and states that "[an attorney] shall not enter into an agreement for, charge, or collect an illegal or unconscionable fee."

    The rule then goes on to explain the meaning of "unconscionable fee" by listing 11 factors to consider. The most relevant in your case, in my opinion, is factor 11: "The informed consent of the client to the fee."

    I agree with Mr. Daymude that it is probably not the case that your fees would have stopped at $2,000 had the attorney gone the other route. But the fact that you demonstrated a concern about your potential legal bill and were taken by surprise by its amount suggest to me that the attorney fell short of his duty to communicate with you and may be in violation of some ethical duty. But again, because ethics questions are very fact-specific, it may very well be that the attorney did nothing wrong.

    In any event, I don't know what your attorney did for you that he is now charging $16,000 so I can't really say whether the fee is unconscionable under the circumstances. I've attached the link to Rule 4-200 below. Play with the factors and come to your own conclusion.

    Best of luck.

    This is an incomplete answer written in response to the limited facts provided. It is intended as a courtesy to better inform the reader about his or her possible rights and potential courses of action; it is not intended as formally researched legal advice or as an agreement to enter into an attorney-client relationship.


  3. No one can answer this question without first reviewing the details of the $16,000 invoice to ascertain what services the attorney provided. I suspect, from the amount, that it was more than drafting the judgment. You should, of course, discuss the situation with your attorney. But you might also invest in a couple of hours with another attorney to review the invoice and the matter for a "second opinion".

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