Your representation agreement with your lawyer will provide the fee that you will need to pay them and cover other issues in the attorney-client relationship. For example, it should outline how the work in the case will be divided between the attorney and any support staff, such as clerks or paralegals. Having this agreement is critical to minimize disputes down the road, which are most often but not always about fees.
The process of negotiating a representation agreement can be a useful way to make sure that you have control over your relationship with your attorney. You can include terms that provide how often your lawyer must communicate with you and define situations in which they must contact you before taking action.
The fee provisions of the representation agreement will state the fee structure, which probably will be an hourly fee, contingency fee, or fixed fee. (The section on this website that discusses attorney fees and costs explains each of these structures in detail.) Also, the agreement will provide how the fee will be paid and outline any additional costs. The agreement should cover how often you will be billed and describe how the bills will itemize what the lawyer is doing for you.
A fee agreement also should provide the rates for work that is done by the attorney’s support staff, which should be lower than the attorney’s rate. If you are being charged on an hourly basis, it may indicate the minimum billing segment for work done by each type of professional.
Some clients have a certain limit on the legal costs that they want to bear, while others may want to keep track of how expenses are mounting. The fee agreement can provide that the lawyer will inform you when the fees and expenses reach a certain amount. It can also provide that the lawyer will let you know and get your approval before incurring an expense over a certain amount.
The representation agreement also will cover issues such as the scope of the attorney-client relationship. If your attorney will simply be counseling you rather than representing you in court, for example, the agreement should state this limitation. Also, it should clearly outline which actions (if any) the lawyer can take without consulting the client first. You may trust your attorney to make certain judgment calls on their own, or you may prefer to have the final word on each decision. Either way, you should put your preferences in writing to avoid confusion and disappointment.
Also, the agreement should describe the way in which the attorney-client relationship can end, such as whether the client has the right to fire the lawyer with or without cause. It should give the client information on how to get their client file from the attorney in case they need it for another attorney or their own records.
Violations of the Agreement
You can potentially sue your lawyer in a legal malpractice claim if they violate the terms of the representation agreement, and this had a clear negative impact on your matter. These lawsuits are often challenging to prove because they require showing that the lawyer’s conduct not only was incompetent but also led directly to quantifiable losses that you sustained. In other words, you need to prove that a competent attorney would have produced a better result. Sometimes, unless huge amounts of money are at stake or the matter cannot be revisited, it is better simply to move forward to a different attorney.