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Other matters to be wary of

An attorney may attempt to obtain monies unfairly in another way. One such way is to deceptively obtain a fee by claiming unreasonable charges for certain expenses such as "overhead," "disbursements," etc.

If the amount charged in an agreement clearly has no reasonable relation to such expenses, then it may be an attempt to collect a flat fee deceptively. Relatively large amounts for such "expenses" may really be fees which normally should be applied to hourly rates. For instance, if a lawyer asks for several thousand dollars as a "retainer" or "initial payment," the lawyer must take from this amount only what he earns hourly—he generally must return any unearned amount. All charges in an agreement must be explained fully; there must be no deception.

As explained above, the mixing of hourly rates, contingency fees, and flat fees is potentially permissible—but make sure that the attorney justifies in terms of work to be performed any agreement which calls for both a contingency percentage and a substantial flat fee. Remember, an excessive fee is defined as one which bears no reasonable relation to the justifiable work performed on a case.

No matter what the fee arrangement, always ask for an actual accounting of the time the lawyer spends on your case. Determine if the total charges of hourly work bears a reasonable relationship to the fee; also check to be sure you are paid any refund from your retainer for hours not worked.

In my opinion, you should avoid signing an agreement which you believe to be clearly excessive.

And avoid signing an agreement in which you sign away a portion of your monthly income for an indefinite future. The lawyer could be obtaining an undefined excessive amount for what might be a fairly limited number hours worked.

It is more reasonable if your case has to go to Court to agree with your attorney to pay a fixed dollar amount as a contingency fee only if your case is won. The contingency would probably reflect both the lawyer's expected work time as well as a dollar amount for the contingent risk. You then could make partial payments from your benefits for a period of time necessary to payoff that amount. Perhaps some other contingent fee could be arranged; but remember such a contingency should be a fixed dollar amount having some relation to the amount of work actually performed.

If you believe an agreement you have already signed is clearly excessive and therefore unenforceable, you can go to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers and make a complaint.

The Board can terminate any improper agreement and discipline the attorney. The address of the Board is: Board of Bar Overseers, Office of the Bar Counsel, 75 Federal St., Boston, MA 02110, 617-728-8750.

Don't continue to pay an unjustified amount of money for the legal services you obtained.

(This article is not providing legal advice; if the reader has a specific legal question,  s/he should seek competent counsel.)