Dispute About Fees

Stressed couple talking to lawyer

Avoiding Disputes about Fees

Lawyers can avoid or minimize disputes about fees by several means. The first, perhaps obvious, is to ensure legal fees are fair and reasonable to begin with.1 The second is to ensure clients understand from the outset how and when their file will be billed. The third is to issue bills without delay and in a manner that lets a client see clearly what they are being billed for.

Addressing Disputes about Fees

Each jurisdiction has its own process for dealing with disputes between lawyers and clients about legal fees. Some law societies offer mediation services. Some courts provide assessment or taxation processes. It is important that lawyers are familiar with the processes available in their jurisdiction and any applicable rules or guidance to prepare for a mediation or assessment of their fees. In general, though, when a client seeks an assessment of the lawyer’s account, the lawyer should be prepared to explain why the fees and disbursed are justified. When an account is subject to a formal assessment process, the lawyer who is most familiar with the matter should be prepared to explain the account, and to provide information regarding the services provided and the amounts charged. 

When attending a formal assessment, the lawyer should bring all relevant documentation relating to the file, including:

  • A copy of the retainer letter or agreement.
  • Copies of any communication with the client about fees or billing.
  • Copies of the invoice or invoices in issue.
  • Time records or other information that clearly shows what was done to justify the lawyer’s fees.
  • Invoices issued to third parties.
  • Communications with clients confirming instructions, especially with respect to work that generated significant fees or expenditures for significant disbursements.
  • Copies of substantive work performed on the file (pleadings, agreements, written briefs, etc.).
  • Documents evidencing all payments made by the client.

Resources may be available in your jurisdiction explaining the assessment process, and what you should expect when your account is reviewed.

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End Notes

1 On this first point, Alice Woolley cites a random review of one hundred Ontario assessment cases in which 22 were not reduced at all, 26 were reduced by up to ten percent, and approximately 19 were reduced by more than fifty percent. Woolley acknowledges reductions in the order of ten percent may simply reflect a taxation officer finding a reduction to appease the client, but this does not change the fact that almost one in five assessments resulted in a lawyer’s bill being reduced by more than fifty percent. Woolley points to this study in support of her hypothesis that there are ethical problems with how Canadian lawyers bill their clients, whether through subjective intent, willful blindness, or otherwise. (See Woolley, Time for Change at 871, citing R.W. Gramlow and R.B. Linton, The Nature of the Process for Assessing Solicitor and Client Bills (Toronto: RWG Consulting, 2000) at xi.)