No Recovery – No Fee! – Is This For Real?

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Almost every advertisement for an attorney who represents people injured in car crashes, motorcycle collisions, falls, even medical malpractice victims, tells the reader “We Don’t Get Paid Unless You Do” or “No Recovery/No Fee”.  It is universal, because traditionally these types of cases are those where the outcome is often uncertain and the measure of damages (what a person may recovery either through settlement or through a jury verdict) is not able to be determined at the outset.  The attorney is assuming the huge burden of expending his effort, time, energy and skills on your behalf, when he has no idea whether you will win, or win enough to provide a reasonable fee.

What is being offered by the attorney in cases like these is called a “Contingency Fee”, and at its most basic level it means that the Lawyer’s fee is “contingent” upon there being a fund recovered on behalf of the client.  Very simple – If you don’t recovery money, I don’t get paid.  Can you think of any other professional service where they help you on that basis (try it with your doctor or accountant).

You have been hurt in a car crash.  You know you hurt, you know you need a doctor, you know you aren’t going to work tomorrow.  You should know the insurance company is NOT there to help, and you know you need a lawyer.    But you have no idea how hurt you are, how long you will miss work, what kind of doctors you will need, how long you will be suffering or whether the injuries will last for the rest of your life.  Because no one can know of the extent of the work involved in representing you or the ultimate amount of your claim, attorneys almost universally accept your case on a contingency basis, because they know you need help, you can’t pay for it and the lawyer is willing to wait (sometimes years) to get paid.

Now comes the confusing part to many clients and the need for clear communication between you and your lawyer (and why many state’s ethics codes require a written fee agreement).  FEES ARE DIFFERENT FROM COSTS.  Attorney’s fees are those paid to the attorney for his services in representing you, and if you lose, there aren’t any fees payable.  Costs of litigation, however, are expenses that are incurred, either by you, or by the attorney on your behalf, and they are the responsibility of the client.  These costs may include filing fees, expert witness fees, court reporters, costs to obtain police reports, medical records, or other such costs and are necessary in order for your case to be properly presented.  These are your costs, not the lawyer’s, and if you are not paying for them as the case proceeds, then the lawyer is entitled to get reimbursed FROM YOU, if there is no recovery.

You will hear me say, time and time again, that the essence of the relationship between lawyer and client is open, clear communication.  It can’t be replaced, and you, as the client, deserve it.  Talk about the difference between costs and fees with your lawyer and get a good understanding of what your obligations are.  It will help lead to a successful relationship and outcome.