Why do some lawyers worry so much about how to enforce their fee liens?
Legal listservs are an invaluable resource in any practice area. I have actively participated in some of them and have obtained great benefit in my practice. Occasionally lawyers I meet around Georgia are very kind in their comments about finding value in my contributions on the listservs.
One thing, however, that puzzles me is the frequency with which personal injury lawyers in listervs discuss how to enforce liens for fees and expenses when clients fire them. I certainly can relate to the desire to get paid for one’s labor. That’s not the issue. Rather, I wonder why they run into this problem so often.
This summer I will mark 31 years in the legal profession. Roughly half of that time I have been primarily involved in representing plaintiffs in tort cases on a contingent fee basis. There have been a couple of clients over the years who left me, a few times when I have "fired" a client when facts came to light that seriously impaired the merits of the case or made me unable to continue with ethical representation of the client. Of several hundred plaintiffs’ cases I have handled, I have never had occasion to worry about enforcing a lien.
I can’t say why other lawyers have that concern so often. But I can make a few points about why I think I don’t.
- Take time on the initial client interview to build the foundation of a mutually trusting relationship. Really listen to the potential client. Show interest in the human being, not just the case. Get the person’s life story, not just the story of an accident and an injury. My primary reason for doing that is to gather information that might be useful in telling the client’s story to a jury. However, after years of three and four hour initial interviews, I have come to believe that a collateral benefit is laying the foundation for earning trust. I don’t waste a client’s time with monthly appointments during the life of a case, though I suppose that wouldn’t hurt. However, it seems that when we take that time on the front end, we have a lot less problems on the back end of a case.
- Use due diligence in screening cases – thorough initial interview, checking facts, using gut instincts about credibility. Is this person and this case a good investment? If it doesn’t feel right, trust instincts and experience, and send the potential client elsewhere.
- When possible, visit with clients in their homes. The primary reason, again, is to gather high quality information to portray the client’s good qualities to a jury. However, a collateral benefit is the development of a friendship with the client. Friends don’t cheat friends by firing them after they have done the work.
- Structure the fee contract to set a formula for determining a fee if the client fires the lawyer within sight of the promised land, but before an offer is on the table from the defense. If a client is tempted to try to cut out the lawyer who has done all the work to develop a case, such a written formula provides a deterrent against playing such games.
- At appropriate points in the progress of the case, take the time for a face to face meeting to discuss first how things are going for the client, and then the status of the case and decisions that may be required.
- Remember the maxim that pigs get fat but hogs get slaughtered.
Perhaps the bottom line is the Golden Rule. Generally, if a lawyer treats a client as he or she would want to be treated, the client will reciprocate.
The Shigley Law Firm represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, former chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck and bus accidents. His practice is based largely upon referrals from other attorneys.