Overreaching on attorney fees. Plaintiff’s lawyers do it too.

There are always a variety of ways that examples of overreaching by attorneys on fees manage to push into the legal news. Recently, I wrote about one example involving hourly billing. More often than not, overreaching under that system is what makes the news.

It is not the only way that attorneys overreach on fees though. It is done by plaintiff’s lawyers as well.

Today’s post is about a very recent disciplinary decision issued by the Tennessee Supreme Court that publicly censures a lawyer for overreaching in connection with a contingent fee agreement. It is a case that confirms a point I have raised with a number of lawyers over the years but for which I never had ready authority – other than the rules themselves – to back up my point. Now, I’ve got this decision in Moore v. BPR to help convince folks who need convincing.

At its core, this case explains the limits on the ability of a plaintiff’s attorney to try to guard against what happens if their client rejects the attorney’s advice on whether to accept a settlement offer. There do, in fact, have to be limits on the ability to hedge against that because the ethics rules establish explicitly that the decision whether to settle a civil case or not is the client’s decision. RPC 1.2(a).

The rules clearly allow a lawyer who wishes to withdraw from representing a client over a disagreement about whether to settle a case to pursue withdrawal as long as they can justify it under one or more provisions of RPC 1.16(b). The law in Tennessee also permits such an attorney, if they do withdraw, to assert a lien as authorized by statute and pursuant to either the terms of their contract or, perhaps, depending on how things turn out for payment in the form of quantum meruit.

What the rules simply do not let a lawyer do is what happened in this new Tennessee Supreme Court case — include a term in the contract with the client that says that, if the client rejects a settlement that the lawyer advises should be accepted, then the lawyer becomes entitled – as a matter of contract – to a fee of x% of the settlement offer being rejected.

And, it does not matter what x equals in that last sentence. However, the nature of the overreach is certainly easier to spot when x happens to equal the original contingent fee percentage as was the case here.

As the Court explains, such a provision is not only antithetical to RPC 1.2(a) because of how much it undermines the right of the client as to settlement but it also takes a situation that is already difficult to balance with questions of conflicts and makes it untenable. Such a provision creates a severe conflict of interest for the lawyer at the moment the other side makes a settlement offer.

You can read the full opinion here. As a bonus, this case is also a primer for those who do disciplinary defense on the potential diminishing returns involved in pursuing appeals from public censures given that the rules prohibit a hearing panel who concludes that discipline should be imposed from imposing any discipline less serious than a public censure.

Thus, any attorney who seeks to appeal from a public censure imposed by a hearing panel has to understand that victory on appeal can only be obtained through a reversal in the nature of complete exoneration on the allegations of disciplinary violations. Far too many attorneys who represent themselves or who dabble in disciplinary defense often fail to understand that dynamic.

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