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Dealing with a shady lawyer?
Old 11-29-2007, 09:44 PM   #1
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Dealing with a shady lawyer?

I have been engaged with an attorney doing some estate planning work for me. Per his engagement letter I sent him a fee to retain him for this work, the work itself was to be time and materials based. It has been several months now, and he has completed the work I hired him to do. During this time he has never sent me a statement of the time he spent, the charges being accrued, etc.

I have asked him point blank about a month ago if he would close out this engagement (since the work he did for me is done) and send me a reconciliation of his charges versus the monies I paid - I strongly suspect there is a balance due in my favor. But, to date, he has not done this.

Can anyone tell me what is typical of attorneys behavior in this area? I guess the next obvious question is "where to go next"? How to get this guy to settle up with me, etc.

Obviously I'll never use him again, should have sought out an attorney who would quote a fixed price, my bad there. But I'd like to get back whatever balance of funds remains that wasn't used in his engagement.

Advice?
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Old 11-30-2007, 12:56 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by FinanceGeek View Post
I have been engaged with an attorney doing some estate planning work for me. Per his engagement letter I sent him a fee to retain him for this work, the work itself was to be time and materials based. It has been several months now, and he has completed the work I hired him to do. During this time he has never sent me a statement of the time he spent, the charges being accrued, etc.

I have asked him point blank about a month ago if he would close out this engagement (since the work he did for me is done) and send me a reconciliation of his charges versus the monies I paid - I strongly suspect there is a balance due in my favor. But, to date, he has not done this.

Can anyone tell me what is typical of attorneys behavior in this area? I guess the next obvious question is "where to go next"? How to get this guy to settle up with me, etc.

Obviously I'll never use him again, should have sought out an attorney who would quote a fixed price, my bad there. But I'd like to get back whatever balance of funds remains that wasn't used in his engagement.

Advice?
Shooting almost in the dark here---but I thought the idea of a "retainer" was a flat payment up front just to have the pro consider your specifics, start and do some work on your behalf, and there is no expectation of any refund of the retainer.

Never really dealt much with lawyers, so I could be wrong for one of the few times in my life
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Old 11-30-2007, 09:26 AM   #3
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So what does the engagement letter say? If the retainer was just an advance against fees, then he owes you a reconciliation. Is he part of a larger firm? Call their accounting department or their managing partner. If not, many areas have fee dispute procedures set up by local bar associations. You could check with the bar association. Worst comes to worst, you can always file a complaint with the state professional responsibility board.
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Old 11-30-2007, 09:53 AM   #4
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Can anyone tell me what is typical of attorneys behavior in this area? I guess the next obvious question is "where to go next"? How to get this guy to settle up with me, etc.

Obviously I'll never use him again, should have sought out an attorney who would quote a fixed price, my bad there. But I'd like to get back whatever balance of funds remains that wasn't used in his engagement.
Advice?
I couldn't tell you whether you're dealing with a "shady" lawyer, an overworked lawyer who hasn't got around to closing out his representation and files for you, a billing and paperwork challenged lawyer, or whether your own expectations are out of whack. You might even owe him money for his work for you -- it can cut both ways. Maybe he hasn't really completed the work if there are filing or recording loose ends.

Few lawyers will handle estate or transactional matters on a fixed-priced basis, unless the matter is so basic and simple like a simple will, a simple contract, etc. From your limited description, you paid him a retainer (some lawyers don't use that term and will call it an "advance fee arrangement") for contemplated services. Lawyers are generally obliged to place "unearned fees" in a trust account for the benefit of the client (typically one large trust/deposit account maintained for all clients) and when the fees are earned the lawyers can draw against the account -- they will typically send you a statement about the balance in your account and the fees they have earned. They may do this monthly, quarterly or maybe just once -- it all depends on the circumstances.

If you want to motivate your lawyer to get back to you, send him a letter asking for a final statement and your files. If he doesn't reasonably respond, then the hammer is a complaint to the Bar where he's licensed.

BTW, the traditional "retainer" that Retiree Robert described is not always used because there is some professional ethical uncertainty about non-refundable retainers. This type of retainer, which basically pays a lawyer for his availability to handle a matter and thus represents a fee he has earned by making himself available to handle potential work, is subject to the professional standard that the lawyer's charges for his work must be reasonable. In some cases, a non-refundable retainer could be very unreasonable.

I incorporate by reference every known disclaimer ever used by lawyers who say they aren't providing legal advice over the internet.
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Old 11-30-2007, 01:30 PM   #5
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Martha and ChrisC are correct on all points.

I strongly suspect that the lawyer is overworked/overwhelmed, rather than dishonest or 'shady'. The former vastly outnumber the latter.

I agree with the suggestion that you make a written request for a reconciliation of your account. Better yet, send it by fax so you'll have a confirmation sheet evidencing when the letter was transmitted.
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Old 11-30-2007, 06:02 PM   #6
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Every time in the past that I've paid a lawyer a retainer fee and pushed to close out the effort, they have charged me just a little more than the retainer was for.

Now, I don't work with lawyers that demand a retainer fee - I think they quickly start to think of it as "their" money.

Grouse, grouse.
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Old 11-30-2007, 08:27 PM   #7
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Every time in the past that I've paid a lawyer a retainer fee and pushed to close out the effort, they have charged me just a little more than the retainer was for.

Now, I don't work with lawyers that demand a retainer fee - I think they quickly start to think of it as "their" money.

Grouse, grouse.
Exactly. Most lawyers make sure that they bill up to the amount of the retainer to make sure that the client never sees the unspent funds. Funny how the bill and the retainer are either identical or pretty close.
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Old 12-01-2007, 10:22 AM   #8
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Exactly. Most lawyers make sure that they bill up to the amount of the retainer to make sure that the client never sees the unspent funds. Funny how the bill and the retainer are either identical or pretty close.
And it's also funny how many lawyers, especially those in a small practice, exhaust a client's retainer account for services and then bill for the shortage and never get paid by their clients. It works both ways, ya know! Now, you know why criminal defense lawyers take an extremely large "retainer" or flat fee for most clients, except the very rich.
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Old 12-01-2007, 05:55 PM   #9
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you know why criminal defense lawyers take an extremely large "retainer" or flat fee for most clients, except the very rich.
Well, they are dealing with people who may be ethically challenged, right? I think bankruptcy lawyers demand payment up front.

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Old 12-01-2007, 08:23 PM   #10
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I just got a final bill from my sister's estate, and it was 100% than his ballpark number he gave me over a year ago.

I called him on it, and agreed to pay more than the ballpark because he had to do some extra work, but sent him a check for 30% less than he was asking for, with a letter explaining why.

I got some estate paperwork today from him, along with a bill showing the 30% taken off, and that I am paid up..........

Glad I asked...........
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Old 12-02-2007, 11:08 AM   #11
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............. I got some estate paperwork today from him, along with a bill showing the 30% taken off, and that I am paid up..........Glad I asked...........
Perhaps this was the tip?
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Old 12-03-2007, 11:59 AM   #12
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Perhaps this was the tip?
yeah, I still paid too much, but at least I got a "discount"..........
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Old 12-03-2007, 04:39 PM   #13
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yeah, I still paid too much, but at least I got a "discount"..........
Nice job.
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