Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Florida Bar of Governors proposed amendment to clarify the concept of flat fees and retainers

I have often complained about the confused state of the law as it relates to the notion of non refundable "flat fees" which in many jurisdictions converts the flat fees into security retainers.   Go here for an example of the problem and here and here for more.

Into this mess, now comes the Florida Bar Board of Governors which has proposed an amendment to Florida's Rule 4-1.5.  The amendment states that non refundable fees are considered earned on receipt and must not be placed in lawyers’ trust accounts.  I have not seen the exact language of the proposal (I requested a copy here).  However, I can say that I think saying that non refundable fees are earned on receipt seems like a good idea, but only as long as the total amount of the fee remains reasonable, which is the accepted standard to evaluate any fee's ethical validity.

According to Lawyers Ethics Alerts, the proposed language in the comment to the rule provides: “A nonrefundable retainer or nonrefundable flat fee is the property of the lawyer and should not be held in trust. If a client gives the lawyer a negotiable instrument that represents both an advance on costs plus either a nonrefundable retainer or a nonrefundable flat fee, the entire amount should be deposited into the lawyer’s trust account, then the portion representing the earned nonrefundable retainer or nonrefundable flat fee should be withdrawn within a reasonable time. An advance fee must be held in trust until it is earned. Nonrefundable fees are, as all fees, subject to the prohibition against excessive fees.”

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