Though written fee agreements are required only in contingent fee cases, most lawyers have incorporated letter agreements into their practices as a matter of course. What is often missed in the grind of taking on a new client, obtaining the client’s signature on a standard engagement letter and filing the letter away, is the opportunity the agreement provides to serve as a blueprint for the representation.
A well-crafted engagement agreement should let the client know what the client can expect from the lawyer, and what the lawyer expects from the client. It should tell the client that the lawyer has a duty to provide competent (Rule 1.1), diligent (Rule 1.3) representation. It should tell the client that though the lawyer will defer to the client in terms of the objectives of the representation, the lawyer will exercise his or her discretion in selecting the means to accomplish those objectives (Rule 1.2). It should assure the client that the lawyer will communicate with the client on developments in the representation (Rule 1.4) and will charge the client a reasonable fee (Rule 1.5) as set forth in the agreement.
The agreement should assure the client that the client can expect the lawyer to live up to these professional obligations, on the terms set forth in the agreement. Taking a few extra minutes at the beginning of the engagement to document these terms, and to obtain the client’s signature on the agreement, will set a course for smoother sailing going forward.
Mark W. Gifford