Attorney Liens Part 2: What are the Requirements and Limitations of an Attorney Lien?
In Part 1, we discussed what attorney liens are and when they might be used. This post will talk about the requirements and limitations of attorney liens.
There are several things that must exist before your old attorney can file a lien to recover unpaid costs and fees. First and foremost is a valid contract that contains an understanding that you will pay your attorney. If you never agreed to give money to an attorney, he cannot later demand to be paid, no matter what work he may have done for you.
Next, there must be evidence that you are avoiding paying the attorney’s fees and costs you agreed to pay, as well as evidence that the attorney provided you with a timely notice of the fees and costs he believes you owe him. If you’ve already arranged payment, or if your attorney never even gave you an accounting of what he thinks you owe, a lien would be inappropriate and/or premature.
If those requirements have been met, the attorney can then file a notice of lien, setting forth exactly what he thinks he’s entitled to and his request as to how he’ll receive it.
Whether you’ve failed to pay him or not, your attorney is still ethically obligated to avoid prejudicing the interests of your case. This basic rule applies very differently depending on the circumstances, but if the lien might hurt your chances in court, there is a higher likelihood that it will be denied.
Contingency fee agreements – the type of contract most plaintiffs sign in personal injury cases – also bring special limitations. If your contract provides that you will owe your attorney nothing unless he recovers money for you, he cannot try to make you pay him anything unless and until that case is successful. If the case succeeds, however, your original attorney may be able to claim a portion of your award as reasonable attorney fees and to cover his costs.
Acceptable Reasons to Withdraw
Your attorney’s ability to file a lien for his fees and costs may hinge, among other factors, on whether his withdrawal was reasonable. If, for example, he withdrew from your case without giving a reason (or because he decided to become a professional golfer instead), and his withdrawal damaged your case, the court may well support you in your decision not to pay him for the work he did. If, however, his withdrawal was necessary or reasonable and if the court approved the withdrawal, it is likely that he will be able to recover reasonable fees and costs for the work he did, according to the terms of your contract.
There are several reasons to withdraw that are likely to be supported by the court, and Rule 4-1.16 of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct delineates acceptable reasons for an attorney to withdraw from a case.
Required Withdrawal: A lawyer is required to withdraw if representation violates the law or any of the Rules of Professional Conduct, if he’s physically or mentally incapable of representing the client, or if the client discharges him. He must also withdraw if he believes or knows that the client’s action is criminal or fraudulent, unless the client agrees to disclose and rectify the fraud.
Permissible Withdrawal: Withdrawal is also allowed for many reasons so long as there is no harm done to the client’s interests – so an attorney who wants to withdraw on the eve of trial will likely need to state an extremely good reason for doing so. If the lawyer fundamentally disagrees with the client, if the client refuses to fulfill obligations to the lawyer after being warned that withdrawal will result otherwise, if the case becomes unreasonably burdensome financially, or if the client has made the case unreasonably difficult, withdrawal may also be permitted by the court.
If you feel that your former attorney’s withdrawal was unreasonable or unreasonably harmful to your case, you may be able to challenge his lien on those grounds.
Responsibilities After Withdrawal
When an attorney is discharged and/or allowed to withdraw from a case, he still maintains the duty to protect his former client’s interests through the transition to new counsel, including providing case file information to the new attorney. Though the option of retaining case files as security for unpaid fees is often available, it is limited by law, as will be discussed in Part 3. An attorney must also refund to his client any advance fee that hasn’t been earned.
If your former attorney has filed a lien against you, if you dispute the amount of the fees he claims you owe him, or if you are seeking new counsel for your case, Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore is experienced in holding other attorneys accountable for their actions. Contact us today to see how our expertise can help you.