Bar Counsel Notes: Retention of Earned Attorney Fees

Lawyer had served a client on a relatively complex contract matter. After making payment of all attorney fees, the client fired the attorney. As a result, Lawyer agreed and then allowed the relationship to terminate with a timely confirmation email to the client. That representation ended two years ago, but the former client has now asked for a substantial refund of those fees. What are Lawyer's obligations concerning making that refund?

Absent a court order directing otherwise, Lawyer has no obligation to refund any portion of that paid fee to the former client. Lawyer should expeditiously send a short letter or email to the client confirming that the legal work had been properly done, the fees were earned and that the client had earlier timely paid the fees without any objection. Therefore, the fees had been earned and no refund is due. If the client subsequently petitions for fee arbitration, the communication described above will assist the lawyer in defending the right to retain the fee.

*Disclaimer: The Informal Ethics Advisory Notes from Bar Counsel are intended as outreach by the office of Bar Counsel for the use and benefit of the Maine bar. These scenarios are drawn from actual telephone calls received by the attorneys in the office of Bar Counsel in the course of providing informal advice on the Code of Professional Responsibility, known as Bar Counsel's "Ethics Hotline." The particular advice in each case is limited with reference to the particular factual situation related by the inquiring attorney who must be inquiring about his or her own conduct or the conduct of a member of his or her firm. We do not provide any advice to one attorney about the conduct of another attorney unless they are members of the same law firm. In the telephone opinions, we usually explore and discuss additional factual variables. However, I have attempted to pare down these factual scenarios to make the email newsletter more readable and useful in a general sense. Obviously, that creates the risk that slight variations on the facts, to a learned reader, may give rise to a different analysis and conclusion.