Resolving Attorney Fee Disputes Before They Get Out of Hand

dispute arbitrationsWhenever money is involved in a particular transaction, there is always a risk of dispute.  Money may not buy happiness, but it is the engine that makes the modern world spin and people are very sensitive to any perceived unfairness or chicanery involving their money.  When it comes to fees paid to or billed by an attorney, many people believe they should be able to link every hour billed to work done by the attorney, and every other fee to a concrete benefit on their part.  In other words, fee disputes are a fact of life.

The key is to never let them get out of hand.  Under California law, there is mandatory fee arbitration between lawyers and clients (California is one of 12 States or jurisdictions with such laws, the others being Alaska, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Fee Dispute Arbitration

The law in California requires fee arbitration if requested by either the lawyer or the client.  Most dispute arbitrations in California are managed by the local Bar Association of the lawyer in question, but that does not mean the attorney is in control: The attorney must participate if the client requests a fee dispute arbitration.  Most arbitrations are conducted within a few hours, with a decision and award rendered within a month.  The client can elect to have another attorney present at the arbitration if they wish, but no legal fees are awarded by fee dispute arbitration boards under any circumstances.

With such a robust, organized and effective fee dispute system, there is simply no reason to pursue any other vector of satisfaction even for large amounts of unpaid fees or fees believed collected in error.  Whether as the attorney or the client in a fee dispute, pursuing “vigilante” justice such as hiring a collection agent or attempting to use nuisance filings or other intimidation tactics is counter-productive.  The arbitration is quick and enforceable, removing any possibility of ethical issues or loss of claim due to improper procedures.  From a client’s point of view, the arbitration gives them access to an impartial mechanism that should satisfy any legitimate claim for improper billing.

For any fee dispute, there is a danger that the perceived unfairness and emotions associated with finances can cloud judgments.  The arbitration process in California prevents these factors from creating an untenable situation.

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