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Ethical Considerations When Imposing an Attorney Lien

Posted by attorney Michael Morgan

RCW 46.40.10 establishes the right of an attorney to place a lien against a client (and sometimes even an adverse party) in order to collect a reasonable unpaid fee. An attorney lien, in many situations, may be the most efficient manner a lawyer can collect a long overdue bill from a client. I would, however, caution a lawyer from establishing an attorney lien before a case is final. As noted in First Bank v. Zagoria, that the existence of a lien statute is to be balanced against a lawyer's ethical obligation not to cause their client prejudice. The inference that a client cheated his or her own lawyer over promised fees would certainly prejudice the client's ability to retain new counsel and certainly put their client in an unflattering light before the court and opposing counsel. The presence of the lien, furthermore, could be impeachment evidence which may explain why at least one jurisdiction by statute and some other jurisdictions through case law generally prohibit attorney liens before certain types of cases (such as criminal cases) are final.

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