After working with many local Arkansas personal injury/contingency fee attorneys, I have begun to see many small, yet significant, differences in the legal styles and ethical boundaries of experienced attorneys. One in particular is the infamous “Engagement Letter,” aka “Fee Agreement.” Now, I have seen these agreements span in length anywhere from one page with room to spare to six page novels covering every possible scenario. Many feel that, with good “lawyering” only a short one-page agreement is necessary. However, the opposite school of thought seems to believe that full disclosure is necessary to protect both parties. Which is correct? Perhaps both….
The ethical issue comes to light when you consider those few attorneys (and by few I mean most of them) that consider the signing of this agreement as the closing of a sale, hence locking in the client for a windfall of riches. Many attorneys, I have seen, approach the signing of these contracts like a sales pitch. They attempt to speak vaguely and brush over potentially enormous legal issues in order to get the client signed up. I believe that this behavior must stem from a fear of losing the client or from the possibility that another attorney may swoop down and steal the client right out from under them. However, I do no believe that this should be the mentality of our legal profession.
As you can likely already tell, I am not the type of attorney that fears disclosure may cause clients to scare off. Rather, I believe that, if you are a great attorney, the client will not go anywhere. Firstly, most of the terms and language in fee agreements are similar and boilerplate. Most of the fee schedules are relatively close when you compare the attorneys within a locale. So, there is nothing to hide and your client will appreciate the explanation and extra time you spent making them understand.
So, my humble command that I cast upon the legal community is this: “Man Up.” Disclose and explain to your client the terms of your relationship. It will save you in the longrun, make you a better person and better attorney, and will get you more clients while building bonds of trust with current ones. If a client ever feels pressured to sign an engagement letter, then their attorney is probably not the person that they should be going with and should think twice before signing.