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Legal malpractice: Obligated to pay bill for incompetent service?

Chicago, IL |
Filed under: Professional ethics

For about six months I retained a lawyer to help me in an estate settlement dispute with a relative. I was dismayed as I saw that he seemed to mainly agree with the proposals of my relative’s lawyer
I also sensed, from his e-mails and the timing of events, that he was negotiating with my relative’s lawyer without telling me. It seemed sort of like a plea bargain in a criminal case without telling your client the deal you were making.
Last month I retained a new lawyer who agreed with my ideas of how the dispute should have been handled.

I paid my former lawyer a $1000 retainer. He has billed me again almost as much for the last month of his retention. I feel uneasy about paying more because he was not only ineffective in helping me, but seemed to be on the side of my adversary.

Attorney Answers 2


  1. You are obligated to pay for the services until you fired the lawyer. Feeling uneasy gives no rational basis to refuse payment. Call the lawyer to see if you and he can negotiate off the bill. If not, you are required (just like with a plumber, doctor, dentist) to pay for service rendered. You don't quarrel it seems with the amount of work as much as you quarrel with the negotiation skills used.


  2. I agree that it sounds like that you and your former lawyer simply disagreed about the best way to approach the case. If that is all there is to it, it does not relieve you of the responsibility to pay your bill. That is, if he simply made recommendations of compromise that you did not agree with, you are still obligated. There is a hint though that he made agreements or compromises with the other side that you did not authorize. If these agreements were unauthorized and prejudiced your rights in the case, you may have a basis for not paying some of the fees, or even recovering for the prejudice caused. But, since you now have another attorney who knows the facts of your case, I would suggest asking him about this question.

    Of course, as noted above, you can always seek to have your former attorney voluntarily reduce his bill.

    Lastly, I do want to caution you that if you do not pay your bill, and have yet to obtain needed papers or documents in the possession of your former lawyer, he has a right to hold on to these (with few exceptions) until he is paid. This is called a "retaining lien" and holding important papers can give an attorney a great deal of leverage in getting a fee paid.

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