Lawyers' Trust Account Obligations With Regard to Retainers and Set Fees
Should a flat fee that is received prior to the conclusion of representation be deposited into an attorney's IOLTA account or is it earned at the time of receipt?
ANSWER: In Alabama, a flat fee that is received prior to the conclusion of the representation or prior to the performance of services must be deposited in the attorney's IOLTA account until the fee is actually earned. DISCUSSION: In RO 1992-17, the Disciplinary Commission previously stated that: [T]he client has the absolute right to terminate the services of his or her lawyer, with or without cause, and to retain another lawyer of their choice. This right would be substantially limited if the client was required to pay the full amount of the agreed on fee without the services being performed. In Gaines, Gaines and Gaines v. Hare, Wynn, 554 So.2d 445 (Ala. Civ. App. 1989), the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals stated: "The rule in Alabama is that an attorney discharged without cause or otherwise prevented from full performance, is entitled to be reasonably compensated only for services rendered before such discharge. Mall v. Gunter, 157 Ala. 375, 47 So.2d 144 (1908)." Likewise, in RO 1993-21, the Disciplinary Commission held that an attorney "may not characterize a fee as non-refundable or use other language in a fee agreement that suggests that any fee paid before services are rendered is not subject to refund or adjustment."
As in RO 1993-21, the Commission noted that "non-refundable fee language is objectionable because it may chill a client from exercising his or her right to discharge his or her lawyer and, thus, force the client to proceed with a lawyer that the client no longer has confidence in." As such, the overriding principle of RO 1992-17 and RO 1993-21 is that a non-refundable fee would impinge on the right of the client to change lawyers at any time. Allowing an attorney to keep a fee, regardless of whether any service has been performed for the client, would certainly restrict the ability of a client to terminate the attorney and seek new counsel. In reaching this conclusion, the Commission also made clear that the rule applied to all arrangements where fees are paid in advance of legal services being rendered. As such, all retainers and fees are refundable to the extent that they have not yet been earned. To conclude that a flat fee is earned at the time of receipt, where the contemplated services have yet to be performed or completed, would be in direct contradiction of this long standing principle.
The only exception to the rule that all fees are refundable would be a true availability-only retainer. An availability-only retainer is a payment that is made by a client solely to secure an attorney's future availability and would necessarily restrict the ability of the attorney to represent other clients. A true availability-only retainer is earned at the time of receipt, must be in writing, and must be approved by the client in advance of the payment. To be clear, an attorney may not characterize a flat fee or other type fee that is being paid for future services as an availability-only retainer fee. Any attempt by an attorney to circumvent the rule that all retainers and fees are refundable by mischaracterizing a fee as an availability-only retainer would be an ethics violation. Because a flat fee paid in advance of services is subject to being refunded, Rule 1.15(a), Ala. R. Prof. C., requires that the flat fee be deposited into an attorney's IOLTA account. Rule 1.15, Ala. R. Prof. C., provides in pertinent part, as follows:
RULE 1.15 SAFEKEEPING PROPERTY
(a) A lawyer shall hold the property of clients or third persons that is in the lawyer's possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer's own property. Funds shall be kept in a separate account maintained in the state where the lawyer's office is situated, or elsewhere with the consent of the client or third person. No personal funds of a lawyer shall ever be deposited in such a trust account, except (1) unearned attorney fees that are being held until earned, and (2) funds sufficient to cover maintenance fees, such as service charges, on the account. Interest, if any, on funds, less fees charged to the account, other than overdraft and returned item charges, shall belong to the client or third person, except as provided in Rule 1.15(g), and the lawyer shall have no right or claim to the interest. Other property shall be identified as such and appropriately safeguarded. Complete records of such account funds and other property shall be kept by the lawyer and shall be preserved for six (6) years after termination of the representation.
(emphasis added) Because flat fees are not earned at the time of receipt, they are unearned attorney fees that must be held in the attorney's IOLTA account until earned in accordance with Rule 1.15.
However, the entire flat fee is not required to be held in trust until the conclusion of the representation. Rather, an attorney may withdraw portions of the fee from the trust account as the fee is earned. Exactly when and what amount of the fee is earned during the representation is a question of reasonableness. It is generally recognized that the first yardstick used in assessing the reasonableness of an attorney fee is the time consumed. Peebles v. Miley, 439 So.2d 137 (Ala. 1983). For example, an attorney may withdraw portions of the flat fee that have been earned based on the time the attorney has spent on the matter and his normal hourly rate. In doing so, the attorney should notify the client when portions of the fee are withdrawn from the trust account by sending a statement or invoice to the client stating the date and the amount of the withdrawal.
An attorney may also enter into a written agreement with the client setting forth milestones in the representation that entitle the attorney to receive a specified portion of the fee. The fee agreement may explicitly state that an attorney is entitled to specific portions of the fee after certain stages in the representation have been completed. For example, assume an attorney is representing a client in a criminal matter for a flat fee of $5,000.00. The fee agreement may provide that the attorney is entitled to $2,500.00 of the fee after arraignment or after the preliminary hearing has been held. Any such agreement between the attorney and the client should be set out, preferably in writing, at the outset of the representation.