This post is a continuation of a series regarding legal fee disputes with an attorney.
In How To Dispute Attorney Fees – Part 1, I covered the two mediums used by most local bar associations, a fee dispute mediation or a fee dispute arbitration;
and in some states, both are used. In How To Dispute Attorney Fees – Part 2, I covered the fundamentals that you must grasp before deciding if a legal fee dispute is right for you. Moreover, in both of these posts, I reminded you that your state’s fee dispute programs are not the only option to an attorney refund and that you should seriously consider my eBook, Dispute It – A Layman’s Guide on How to Get an Attorney Refund & File a Bar Grievance. There are many factors to consider, and you must understand all your options.
In this series, I will speak more to a fee dispute arbitration since this is the most common route offered by most local bar associations, and what was offered in my state of Texas. I was fortunate to have been awarded a partial refund of my attorney fees. You should visit my website’s Helpful Resources section and look under the headings Local Bar Office & Website and Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement. If a fee dispute arbitration is offered in your state, then it can be determined under one of those headings. There are rules for these types of arbitrations, and I highly advise you to read them to understand what exactly is involved. Perhaps, even consider a short consultation with an Ethics & Professional Responsibility attorney who specializes in this area of law. What follows is an explanation of a fee dispute arbitration from a Texas perspective only; therefore, I caution you to consider it for its general guidelines alone and seek out the specifics of your state.
Texas is comprised of a multi-member fee dispute arbitration panel consisting of two attorneys and one non-attorney. This group is presided over by a panel chair who specializes in the area of law for the case at hand. The second-panel attorney specializes in a different area of law, and the third panel member is a non-attorney. All the panel members volunteer their time.
Texas fee dispute arbitrations are voluntary, meaning that an attorney must agree to attend the hearing. If the attorney does not agree, then it is frowned upon by the State Bar should you decide to file a grievance. Once your attorney agrees, a formal letter will be sent with the logistics. The panel chair will usually give you the opportunity to ask questions about the hearing format and procedures through discovery. However, anything you ask must be fully disclosed, so expect instructions that require you to carbon copy the opposing party on all correspondence.
The fee dispute arbitration format consists of you and your attorney’s presence in a conference room. Witnesses can appear in person or participate via a conference call. You may also have a spouse or friend assist you, but the named client in the contract will be required to sign a consent form. If you so choose, you (and your attorney) have the option to be represented by legal counsel at the fee arbitration hearing.
The format consists of an opening statement by the committee chair; wherein, instructions are given for the hearing. The total time for my fee dispute arbitration was about three and one-half hours, with each party having fifteen minutes for introductions; forty-five minutes to make a presentation; thirty minutes of questioning by the panel; and then, fifteen minutes for me and my attorney’s closing statements. Objections may come during your performance from your attorney, your attorney’s counsel, or the committee chair if non-fee related matters are presented. Cross-examination is not allowed, so this is a huge benefit and contributes to the consumer-friendly format. Since the panel chair will be an attorney specializing in your case’s area of law, they will understand the issues and keep you focused on matters of the fee dispute arbitration. I suggest trying to present your full evidence on all effects; however, expect objections if you get too far off track discussing damages or grievances. They are not within the arbitration panel’s jurisdictional authority.
During your presentation, your focus should be on the non-attorney member. Be courteous and respectful to all, but the attorneys will be the stricter audience. Although I could not object during my attorney’s presentation, I was able to refute her comments during my fifteen-minute closing remarks. This part required me to think on my feet, as I structured my closing remarks during the forty-five minutes that my attorney made her presentation. I scored a couple of significant points as well by introducing a couple more exhibits that were not in my original filing.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the panel will deliberate over a one to two week period and send out a letter with their fee dispute arbitration ruling. No explanation is given for the panel’s ruling other than an award declaration, or lack thereof, and a reference that the award payment is due in thirty days. There is no formal appeal; however, refer back to the fee dispute arbitration rules regarding time deadlines for potential panel errors. Texas allows time deadlines for aggrieved clients to raise possible panel errors shortly after the arbitration hearing date and after the award decision date.
I conclude this post by recommending a short consultation with an Ethics & Professional Responsibility attorney to review your final fee dispute arbitration petition and help weigh all of your options. Be sure to read How To Dispute Attorney Fees – Part 1, How To Dispute Attorney Fees – Part 2, and How To Dispute Attorney Fees – Part 4.
Kenneth R. Gilley is the President of Kenneth R. Gilley & Co., LLC, a small digital marketing company. He is the author of the e-book, Dispute It – A Layman’s Guide on How to Get an Attorney Refund & File a Bar Grievance, and regularly contributes to his blog, My.LegalLessons.com. Ken holds a B.S. in Marketing from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA, and lives in The Woodlands, TX.