When helping our clients, we lawyers like to plan for every eventuality. When it comes to our own relationships with co-counsels, including former firm members, we sometimes fail to foresee how things could fall apart and plan for it. Even those of us who adhere to the adage to “get it in writing” know that agreements are open to interpretation and that there is always room for argument. Disputes over the economics involved in law practice are not uncommon — firms dissolve, attorneys leave, co-counsel arrangements sour, and it isn’t always clear how fees generated after the fact should be divided. Litigation to resolve these disputes is costly, lengthy, and stressful, but there is another way. Enter the CMBA’s Division of Fees Mediation and Arbitration Committee.
When fee disputes arise between lawyers, this Committee mediates or arbitrates them pursuant to Rule 1.5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. In addition, when both parties consent, the Committee can hear disputes between discharged and successor counsel regarding the proper allocation of contingent fees between them. This is an invaluable resource to our members, who can privately and cost-effectively resolve disagreements while having their matter heard by Committee members who have experience with mediation and arbitration.
I recently served as an arbitrator on a three-person panel for the Committee. The parties before us disagreed over whether a former attorney at the firm was entitled to a co-counsel fee for a case the attorney originated while at the firm, which did not result in a fee until after the attorney left. Both sides had the opportunity to brief the panel in writing prior to the arbitration and presented their arguments before the panel in person as well. Following deliberation, we rendered our decision, which was then relayed to the parties. Rather than engaging in extensive litigation, the parties were able to resolve their dispute in a short period of time for a reasonable fee. Those of us on the Committee were fulfilled in knowing that we had helped the parties swiftly resolve their dispute, enabling them to move on with their respective practices.
For Information on how to join the Division of Fees, Mediation, & Arbitration Committee, contact Heather Zirke at (216) 696-3525 or email@example.com
Lawyers on the other side of the process praise the benefits of the system. A local attorney recently represented a law firm in a mediation with the Committee and reached out afterward to express how useful the process was. His clients were two lawyers who left one law firm and took several cases with them to start a new law firm. The mediation initially involved the resolution of a fee dispute over one such case when it settled after the lawyers had begun their new firm. However, with the mediator’s assistance, the parties were able to discuss beyond that single case and establish a global resolution between the two firms for all such cases. In expressing his satisfaction, the representing attorney said “[T]he parties were afforded sufficient time to explore the facts of each side’s position, and a resolution was achieved without costly, public litigation which would have served no useful purpose and potentially adversely impacted the clients who cases were involved. This service provided by the CMBA was a truly cost effective, efficient process which brought to a conclusion a purely economic dispute between members. I wholeheartedly endorse this service provided by our Bar Association.”
The Committee also presides over traditional co-counsel arrangements between lawyers who have never been part of the same firm. Sometimes, these relationships sour during the life of a case and, when a case is settled, one party may no longer want to honor a fee-sharing arrangement. The Committee has been useful in deciding these disputes, whether to determine enforcement of a written agreement, or to provide a solution when the parties have never reduced their intentions to writing.
Fee disputes are inevitable. When the situation arises, the CMBA and this Committee are here to help make the resolution process less painful, less costly, and more efficient so that you can get back to working for your clients and doing what you do best.
Abby Botnick is a Plaintiff’s attorney with Shapero | Roloff Co., L.P.A. and handles a wide variety of personal injury, medical malpractice, and nursing home abuse and neglect cases. She serves on the CMBA Division of Fees Mediation and Arbitration Committee and also the Bar Admissions Committee. She has been a CMBA member since 2005. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.