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The Law of Lawyer’s Fees in Colorado – What You Need to Know

It is important that consumers of Legal Services have all the information they need when they make the decision of which firm to retain here in Colorado – what follows is the ethical rules that govern legal fees in Colorado and the all important “comment” that explains the rule…

Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct – the Client-Lawyer Relationship

Rule 1.5

Amended and Adopted by the Court, En Banc, April 20, 2000, effective July 1, 2000.

(a) A lawyer’s fee shall be reasonable. The factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of a fee include the following:

(1) the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;

(2) the likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer;

(3) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services;

(4) the amount involved and the results obtained;

(5) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances;

(6) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client;

(7) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and

(8) whether the fee is fixed or contingent.

(b) When the lawyer has not regularly represented the client, the basis or rate of the fee shall be communicated to the client, in writing, before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.

(c) A fee may be contingent on the outcome of the matter for which the service is rendered, except in a matter in which a contingent fee is otherwise prohibited. A contingent fee shall meet all of the requirements of Chapter 23.3 of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure, “Rules Governing Contingent Fees.”

(d) Other than in connection with the sale of a law practice pursuant to Rule 1.17, a division of a fee between lawyers who are not in the same firm may be made only if:

(1) the division is in proportion to the services performed and responsibility assumed by each lawyer;

(2) the client consents to the employment of an additional lawyer after a full disclosure of the division of fees to be made;

(3) the total fee is reasonable; and

(4) the division is set forth in writing signed by the lawyers and by the client with informed consent.

(e) Referral fees are prohibited.

(f) Fees are not earned until the lawyer confers a benefit on the client or performs a legal service for the client. Advances of unearned fees are the property of the client and shall be deposited in the lawyer’s trust account pursuant to Rule 1.15(f)

(1) until earned. If advances of unearned fees are in the form of property other than funds, then the lawyer shall hold such property separate from the lawyer’s own property pursuant to Rule 1.15(a).

(g) Nonrefundable fees and nonrefundable retainers are prohibited. Any agreement that purports to restrict a client’s right to terminate the representation, or that unreasonably restricts a client’s right to obtain a refund of unearned or unreasonable fees, is prohibited.

The Comment to Rule 1.5

Basis or Rate of Fee

In a new client-lawyer relationship, the basis or rate of the fee must be promptly communicated in writing to the client. When the lawyer has regularly represented a client, they ordinarily will have reached an understanding concerning the basis or rate of the fee; but, when there has been a change from their previous understanding, the basis or rate of the fee should be promptly communicated in writing. All contingent fee arrangements must be in writing, regardless of whether the client-lawyer relationship is new or established. See C.R.C.P., Ch. 23.3, Rule 1. A written communication must disclose the basis or rate of the lawyer’s fees, but it need not take the form of a formal engagement letter or agreement, and it need not be signed by the client. Moreover, it is not necessary to recite all the factors that underlie the basis of the fee, but only those that are directly involved in its computation. It is sufficient, for example, to state that the basic rate is an hourly charge or a fixed amount or an estimated amount, to identify the factors that may be take into account in finally fixing the fee, or to furnish the client with a simple memorandum or the lawyer’s customary fee schedule. When developments occur during the representation that render an earlier disclosure substantially inaccurate, a revised written disclosure should be provided to the client.

A written statement concerning the fee reduces the possibility of misunderstanding. Lawyers are well-advised to use written disclosures even when they are not required. Moreover, it is preferable, although not mandatory, to obtain the client’s signature acknowledging the basis or rate of the fee.

In setting a fee, a lawyer should also consider the inability of the client to pay a reasonable fee. Persons unable to pay all or a portion of a reasonable fee should be able to obtain necessary legal services, and lawyers should support and participate in ethical activities designed to achieve that objective.

Terms of Payment

A lawyer may require advance payment of a fee, but is obliged to return any unearned portion. See Rule 1.16(d). A lawyer may accept property in payment for services, such as an ownership interest in an enterprise, providing this does not involve acquisition of a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of the litigation contrary to Rule 1.8(j). However, a fee paid in property instead of money may be subject to special scrutiny because it involves questions concerning both the value of the services and the lawyer’s special knowledge of the value of the property.

An agreement may not be made whose terms might induce the lawyer improperly to curtail services for the client or perform them in a way contrary to the client’s interest. For example, a lawyer should not enter into an agreement whereby services are to be provided only up to a stated amount when it is foreseeable that more extensive services probably will be required, unless the situation is adequately explained to the client. Otherwise, the client might have to bargain for further assistance in the midst of a proceeding or transaction. However, it is proper to define the extent of services in light of the client’s ability to pay. A lawyer should not exploit a fee arrangement based primarily on hourly charges by using wasteful procedures. When there is doubt whether a contingent fee is consistent with the client’s best interest, the lawyer should offer the client alternative bases for the fee and explain their implications. Chapter 23.3 of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure governs contingent fee arrangements, and contingent fees otherwise may be limited by applicable law.

Division of Fee

A division of fee is a single billing to a client covering the fee of two or more lawyers who are not in the same firm. A division of fee facilitates association of more than one lawyer in a matter in which neither alone could serve the client as well, and most often is used when the fee is contingent and the division is between a referring lawyer and a trial specialist. Paragraph (d) permits the lawyers to divide a fee on the basis of the proportion of services they render and responsibility assumed by each. The client must consent to the fee division in writing. The client must be advised of and agree to the share of the fee that each lawyer is to receive.

Disputes over Fees

If a procedure has been established for resolution of fee disputes, such as an arbitration or mediation procedure established by the bar, the lawyer should conscientiously consider submitting to it. Law may prescribe a procedure for determining a lawyer’s fee, for example, in representation of an executor or administrator, a class or person entitled to a reasonable fee as part of the measure of damages. The lawyer entitled to such a fee and a lawyer representing another party concerned with the fee should comply with the prescribed procedure.

Committee Comment

The fee splitting provisions of Model Rule 1.5(e), now 1.5(d), have been revised to resemble more closely DR 2-107(A) and to tighten up the client consent requirements.

Advances of Unearned Fees and Engagement Retainer Fees

The analysis of when a lawyer may treat advances of unearned fees as property of the lawyer must begin with the principle that the lawyer must hold in trust all fees paid by the client until there is a basis on which to conclude that the lawyer has earned the fee; otherwise the funds must remain in the lawyer’s trust account because they are not the lawyer’s property.

To make a determination of when an advance fee is earned, the written statement of the basis or rate of the fee, when required by Rule 1.5(b), should include a description of the benefit or service that justifies the lawyer’s earning the fee, the amount of the advance unearned fee, as well as a statement describing when the fee is earned. Whether a lawyer has conferred a sufficient benefit to earn a portion of the advance fee will depend on the circumstances of the particular case. The circumstances under which a fee is earned should be evaluated under an objective standard of reasonableness. Colo. RPC 1.5(a).

Rule 1.5(f) Does Not Prohibit Lump-sum Fees or Flat Fees

Advances of unearned fees, including “lump-sum” fees and “flat fees,” are those funds the client pays for specified legal services that the lawyer has agreed to perform in the future. Pursuant to Rule 1.15, the lawyer must deposit an advance of unearned fees in the lawyer’s trust account. The funds may beearned only as the lawyer performs specified legal services or confers benefits on the client as provided for in the written statement of the basis of the fee, if a written statement is required by Rule 1.5(b). See also Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers §§ 34, 38 (1998). Rule 1.5(f) does not prevent a lawyer from entering into these types of arrangements.

For example, the lawyer and client may agree that portions of the advance of unearned fees are deemed earned at the lawyer’s hourly rate and become the lawyer’s property as and when the lawyer provides legal services.

Alternatively, the lawyer and client may agree to an advance lump-sum or flat fee that will be earned in whole or in part based upon the lawyer’s completion of specific tasks or the occurrence of specific events, regardless of the precise amount of the lawyer’s time involved. For instance, in a criminal defense matter, a lawyer and client may agree that the lawyer earns portions of the advance lump-sum or flat fee upon the lawyer’s entry of appearance, initial advisement, review of discovery, preliminary hearing, pretrial conference, disposition hearing, motions hearing, trial, and sentencing. Similarly, in a trusts and estates matter, a lawyer and client may agree that the lawyer earns portions of the lump-sum or flat fee upon client consultation, legal research, completing the initial draft of testamentary documents, further client consultation, and completing the final documents.

The portions of the advance lump-sum or flat fee earned as each such event occurs need not be in equal amounts. However, the fees attributed to each event should reflect a reasonable estimate of the proportionate value of the legal services the lawyer provides in completing each designated event to the anticipated legal services to be provided on the entire matter. See Colo. RPC 1.5(a); Feiger, Collison & Killmer v. Jones, 926 P.2d 1244, 1252–53 (Colo. 1996) (client’s sophistication is relevant factor).

Rule 1.5(f) Does Not Prohibit an “Engagement Retainer Fee”

“[A]n ‘engagement retainer fee’ is a fee paid, apart from any other compensation, to ensure that a lawyer will be available for the client if required. An engagement retainer must be distinguished from a lump-sum fee constituting the entire payment for a lawyer’s service in a matter and from an advance payment from which fees will be subtracted (see § 38, Comment g). A fee is an engagement retainer only if the lawyer is to be additionally compensated for actual work, if any, performed.” Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 34 cmt. e. An engagement retainer fee agreement must comply with Rule 1.5(a), (b), and (g), and should expressly include the amount of the engagement retainer fee, describe the service or benefit that justifies the lawyer’s earning the engagement retainer fee, and state that the engagement retainer fee is earned upon receipt. As defined above, an engagement retainer fee will be earned upon receipt because the lawyer provides an immediate benefit to the client, such as forgoing other business opportunities by making the lawyer’s services available for a given period of time to the exclusion of other clients or potential clients, or by giving priority to the client’s work over other matters.

Because an engagement retainer fee is earned at the time it is received, it must not be commingled with client property. However, it may be subject to refund to the client in the event of changed circumstances.

It is unethical for a lawyer to fail to return unearned fees, to charge an excessive fee, or to characterize any lawyer’s fee as nonrefundable. Lawyer’s fees are always subject to refund if either excessive or unearned. If all or some portion of a lawyer’s fee becomes subject to refund, then the amount to be refunded should be paid directly to the client if there is no further legal work to be performed or if the lawyer’s employment is terminated. In the alternative, if there is an ongoing client-lawyer relationship and there is further work to be done, it may be deposited in the lawyer’s trust account, to be withdrawn from the trust account as it is earned.

Amended and Adopted by the Court, En Banc, May 30, 2002, effective July 1, 2002. Justice Martinez would adopt an earlier alternative draft of the rule that permits flat fees to be deposited in an attorney’s operating account under certain defined and limited circumstances.


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___________________________
H. Michael Steinberg Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
The Colorado Criminal Defense Law Firm of H. Michael Steinberg
A Denver, Colorado Lawyer Focused Exclusively On
Colorado Criminal Law For Over 30 Years.
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