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Fee Agreements and Family Law

Tonight's post was written by our Savannah family law attorney, Professor David Purvis.

I have written about my thoughts on what people going through a family law matter should look for before retaining an attorney. One of the most important aspects of making that decision involves affordability. It naturally follows that if the economics of your case are important, your lawyer should be able to explain her fees and put your employment agreement in writing. Makes sense, right?

In Georgia, except for contingency fee arrangements, a fee agreement between a client and his lawyer does not have to be in writing. Yes, you read that correctly. Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct 1.5(b) states:

The scope of the representation and the basis or rate of the fee and expenses for which the client will be responsible shall be communicated to the client, preferably in writing, before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation, except when the lawyer will charge a regularly represented client on the same basis or rate. Any changes in the basis or rate of the fee or expenses shall also be communicated to the client.

Note that it is "preferably in writing", but this rule section does not require the fee agreement to be in writing.

In family law, our contested cases can go on for many months and often over a year before final resolution is obtained. This is particularly true in the more urban areas of the state such as metro-Atlanta and Savannah.

At the Manely Firm, we put our fee agreements with our clients in writing every time. At our recent Family Law Institute in Amelia Island, a gathering of most of the family law attorneys practicing in Georgia, I was shocked to see several hands raise when the question was posed: "Who here does not put all of their fee agreements in writing?". Again, there is nothing ethically wrong with not putting a fee agreement in writing unless it is a contingency agreement, but I can't help but wonder why anyone would not. From the attorney standpoint, this is how we get paid. Don't we want clients to understand how they are expected to do that? From our clients' perspectives, we are talking about their abilities to provide for themselves and their families and to be able to move on financially as well as mentally and emotionally after their family law matter. Don't they want to know up front how their attorney will be charging them?

My health insurance puts in writing how my coverage works and what aspects of medical treatment they will cover and what parts I will be responsible for. Same is true for my car insurance, the mechanic I take my car to, the contractors who have done work at my house. Heck, even the grocery store puts it in writing how much they will charge me for an item by way of the price tag. What makes divorce lawyers think they can operate differently from every other provider of goods or services by not putting their prices and their fee arrangements in writing?

As attorneys, we can't. We shouldn't. At The Manely Firm, we don't!

David Purvis

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