WSR 08-22-031

RULES OF COURT

STATE SUPREME COURT


[ October 28, 2008 ]

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF THE AMENDMENT TO RPC 1.5-FEES AND RPC 1.15A-SAFEGUARDING PROPERTY )

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ORDER

NO. 25700-A-904


The Washington State Bar Association having recommended the adoption of the proposed amendments to RPC 1.5-Fees and RPC 1.15A-Safeguarding Property, and the Court having determined that the proposed amendments will aid in the prompt and orderly administration of justice and further determined that an emergency exists which necessitates an early adoption;

Now, therefore, it is hereby

ORDERED:

(a) That the amendments as attached hereto are adopted.

(b) That pursuant to the emergency provisions of GR 9 (j)(1), the amendments will be published expeditiously and become effective upon publication.

DATED at Olympia, Washington this 28th day of October, 2008.
Alexander, C. J.


C. Johnson, J.


Owens, J.


Madsen, J.



Sanders, J.


J.M. Johnson, J.


Chambers, J.


Stephens, J.



SUGGESTED AMENDMENT

RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT (RPC)

RULE 1.5 FEES



(a)-(e) [Unchanged.]

(f) Fees and expenses paid in advance of performance of services shall comply with Rule 1.15A, subject to the following exceptions:

(1) A lawyer may charge a retainer, which is a fee that a client pays to a lawyer to be available to the client during a specified period or on a specified matter, in addition to and apart from any compensation for legal services performed. A retainer must be agreed to in a writing signed by the client. Unless otherwise agreed, a retainer is the lawyer's property on receipt and shall not be placed in the lawyer's trust account.

(2) A lawyer may charge a flat fee for specified legal services, which constitutes complete payment for those services and is paid in whole or in part in advance of the lawyer providing the services. If agreed to in advance in a writing signed by the client, a flat fee is the lawyer's property on receipt, in which case the fee shall not be deposited into a trust account under Rule 1.15A. The written fee agreement shall, in a manner that can easily be understood by the client, include the following: (i) the scope of the services to be provided; (ii) the total amount of the fee and the terms of payment; (iii) that the fee is the lawyer's property immediately on receipt and will not be placed into a trust account; (iv) that the fee agreement does not alter the client's right to terminate the client-lawyer relationship; and (v) that the client may be entitled to a refund of a portion of the fee if the agreed-upon legal services have not been completed. A statement in substantially the following form satisfies this requirement:

[Lawyer/law firm] agrees to provide, for a flat fee of $__________, the following services: ___________________.

The flat fee shall be paid as follows:__________________.

Upon [lawyer's/law firm's] receipt of all or any portion of the flat fee, the funds are the property of [lawyer/law firm] and will not be placed in a trust account. The fact that you have paid your fee in advance does not affect your right to terminate the client-lawyer relationship. In the event our relationship is terminated before the agreed-upon legal services have been completed, you may or may not have a right to a refund of a portion of the fee.

(3) In the event of a dispute relating to a fee under paragraph (f)(1) or (f)(2) of this Rule. The lawyer shall take reasonable and prompt action to resolve the dispute.

Comment

[1] [9] [Unchanged.]

Additional Washington Comments (10-118)

Reasonableness of Fee and Expenses


[10] Every fee agreed to, charged, or collected, including a fee denominated as "nonrefundable" or "earned upon receipt" that is a lawyer's property on receipt under paragraph (f)(1) or (f)(2), is subject to Rule 1.5(a) and may not be unreasonable.

[11] Under paragraph (a)(9), one factor in determining whether a fee is reasonable is whether the fee agreement or confirming writing demonstrates that the client received a reasonable and fair disclosure of material elements of the fee agreement. Lawyers are encouraged to use written fee agreements that fully and fairly disclose all material terms in a manner easily understood by the client.


Payment of Fees in Advance of Services


[12] In the absence of a written agreement between the lawyer and the client to the contrary that complies with paragraph (f)(1) or (f)(2), all advance payments are presumed to be deposits against future services or costs and must, until the fee is earned or the cost incurred, be held in a trust account pursuant to Rule 1.15A. See Rule 1.15A (c)(2). This fee structure is known as an "advance fee deposit." Such a fee may only be withdrawn when earned. See Rule 1.15A (h)(3). For example, when an advance fee deposit is placed in trust, a lawyer may withdraw amounts based on the actual hours worked. In the case of a flat fee that constitutes an advance fee deposit because it does not meet the requirements of paragraph (f)(2), the lawyer and client may mutually agree, preferably in writing, on a reasonable basis for determining when portions of the fee have been earned, such as specific "milestones" reached during the representation or specified time intervals that reasonably reflect the actual performance of the legal services.

[13] Paragraphs (f)(1) and (f)(2) provide exceptions to the general rule that fees received in advance must be placed in trust. Paragraph (f)(1) describes a fee structure sometimes known as an "availability retainer," "engagement retainer," "true retainer," "general retainer," or "classic retainer." Under these rules, this arrangement is called a "retainer." A retainer secures availability alone, i.e., it presumes that the lawyer is to be additionally compensated for any actual work performed. Therefore, a payment purportedly made to secure a lawyer's availability, but that will be applied to the client's account as the lawyer renders services, is not a retainer under paragraph (f)(1). A written retainer agreement should clearly specify the time period or purpose of the lawyer's availability, that the client will be separately charged for any services provided, and that the lawyer will treat the payment as the lawyer's property immediately on receipt and will not deposit the fee into a trust account.

[14] Paragraph (f)(2) describes a "flat fee," sometimes also known as a "fixed fee." A flat fee constitutes complete payment for specified legal services, and does not vary with the amount of time or effort expended by the lawyer to perform or complete the specified services. If the requirements of paragraph (f)(2) are not met, a flat fee received in advance must be deposited initially in the lawyer's trust account. See Washington Comment [12].

[15] If a lawyer and a client agree to a retainer under paragraph (f)(1) or a flat fee under paragraph (f)(2) and the lawyer complies with the applicable requirements, including obtaining agreement in a writing signed by the client, the fee is considered the lawyer's property on receipt and must not be deposited into a trust account containing client or third-party funds. See Rule 1.15A(c) (lawyer must hold property of clients separate from lawyer's own property). For definitions of the terms "writing" and "signed," see Rule 1.0(n).

[16] In fee arrangements involving more than one type of fee, the requirements of paragraphs (f)(1) and (f)(2) apply only to the parts of the arrangement that are retainers or flat fees. For example, a client might agree to make an advance payment to a lawyer, a portion of which is a flat fee for specified legal services with the remainder to be applied on an hourly basis as services are rendered. The latter portion is an advance fee deposit that must be placed in trust under Rule 1.15A (c)(2). If the requirements of paragraph (f)(2) are met regarding the flat fee portion, those funds are the lawyer's property on receipt and must not be kept in a trust account. If the payment is in one check or negotiable instrument, it must be deposited intact in the trust account, and the flat fee portion belonging to the lawyer must be withdrawn at the earliest reasonable time. See Rule 1.15A (h)(1)(ii) & (h)(4). See also Comment [10] to Rule 1.15A (explaining prohibition on split deposits). Although a signed writing is required under paragraphs (f)(1) and (f)(2) only for the retainer or flat fee portion of the fee (and only if the lawyer and client agree that the fee will be the lawyer's property on receipt), the lawyer should consider putting the entire arrangement in writing to facilitate communication with the client and prevent future misunderstanding. See Washington Comment [11].


SUGGESTED AMENDMENT

RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT (RPC)

RULE 1.15A SAFEGUARDING PROPERTY



(a) (b) [Unchanged.]

(c) A lawyer must hold property of clients and third persons separate from the lawyer's own property.

(1) A lawyer must deposit and hold in a trust account funds subject to this Rule pursuant to paragraph (h) of this Rule.

(2) Except as provided in Rule 1.5(f), and subject to the requirements of paragraph (h) of this Rule, a lawyer shall deposit into a trust account legal fees and expenses that have been paid in advance, to be withdrawn by the lawyer only as fees are earned or expenses incurred.

(3) A lawyer must identify, label and appropriately safeguard any property of clients or third persons other than funds. The lawyer must keep records of such property that identify the property, the client or third person, the date of receipt and the location of safekeeping. The lawyer must preserve the records for seven years after return of the property.

(d) (j) [Unchanged.]

Washington Comments

[1] [Unchanged.]

[2] Client funds include, but are not limited to, the following: legal fees and costs that have been paid in advance (other than retainers and flat fees complying with the requirements of Rule 1.5(f)), funds received on behalf of a client, funds to be paid by a client to a third party through the lawyer, other funds subject to attorney and other liens, and payments received in excess of amounts billed for fees.

[3] [7] [Unchanged.]

[8] If a lawyer accepts payment of an advanced fee deposit by credit card, the payment must be deposited directly into the trust account. It cannot be deposited into a general account and then transferred to the trust account. Similarly, credit card payments of earned fees, of retainers meeting the requirements of Rule 1.5 (f)(1), and of flat fees meeting the requirements of Rule 1.5 (f)(2) cannot be deposited into the trust account and then transferred to another account.

[9] [15] [Unchanged.]

Reviser's note: The brackets and enclosed material in the text of the above section occurred in the copy filed by the agency and appear in the Register pursuant to the requirements of RCW 34.08.040.

Washington State Code Reviser's Office