THERE'S NO SHORTAGE of disgruntled clients who want to hash out disputes with their lawyers over the fees for divorces, real estate deals, automobile accidents and other issues.
The D.C. Bar's Fee Conciliation Service averages about 125 inquiries a year from unhappy clients complaining that their lawyer's fee was excessive or that work paid for wasn't done.
In about 70 percent of the cases, there was no written fee agreement between lawyer and client, according the conciliation service's chairman, Patrick M. Raher of Hogan & Hartson. In other instances, he said, retainers were paid to lawyers, or contingent fee arrangements were made and later disputed because, it turned out, the client didn't understand what those terms meant in the first place.
The disputed fees range from $500 to $1,500. Eventually about 40 to 60 cases wind up before hearing panels of citizens and lawyers, who settle the disagreements.
Last year, about $25,000 in fees was returned to clients through settlements arranged by the fee conciliation service, Raher said. In one unusual case, the hearing panel disallowed $35,750 in fees assessed to a client.
When lawyer and client appear before the panel, they agree in writing that the ruling will be binding. If either side fails to live up to that decision, the D.C. Superior Court can issue a judgment upholding the agreement.
The trouble with a fee conciliation service, Raher said, is that any dicision to use it is purely voluntary. If a lawyers refuses to show up for a hearing, the procedures never get off the ground and the client must take his fee dispute to the courts -- a much longer and costly alternative.
At a meeting this Tuesday, the D.C. Bar Board of Governors is expected to decide whether to put some teeth into the service. A bar committee has proposed replacing the service with what would be known as the District of Columbia Fee Arbitration Board. A lawyer's appearance before that board would also be voluntary -- but with a catch.
If the bar arbitrator determines that a client has a legitimate gripe, and the lawyer either refuses to appear before the board or abide by its decision, the bar will appoint one of its own members to take the client's case to court -- for free.
As a matter of policy, a bar committee concluded, a client with a complaint ought to be able to challenge a fee without having to invest additional money in the legal system by hiring yet another lawyer to fight his fee case in court.
If the bar makes it clear that the matter will be pursued in court, a lawyer no doubt will feel pressured to cooperate with the arbitration procedure. The bar committee wants that enforcement edge to make the arbitration plan work.
The bar is still a little skittish about the proposal. Wesley S. Williams Jr., counsel to the bar, has been asked to advise the board of governors about the bar's legal authority to adopt such a plan. Attorney Axel Kleiboemer, who hears cases for the fee conciliation service, questioned whether lawyers should be singled out for special remedies, such as the proposal by the bar committee.
Raher argues that "you've got to have a process to have a lawyer justify (a disputed fee) or return the money. We don't have one now."
"I have several cases where the lawyer simply refuses to arbitrate. They don't have to give me a reason and they don't," Raher said. Sometimes, the lawyers don't even return his telephone calls once they discover he's calling for the fee conciliation service.
Raher has been pushing proposals for mandatory and binding arbitration fee disputes since 1976, a year before the bar named him a one-man committee to investigate possible procedures to resolve fee disputes. Since then, at least three and perhaps as many as five bar committees and three boards of governors have debated suggestions. So far, all the board has done is endorse the concept of fee arbitration.
"It's a sensitive, sensitive area and it warrants taking a hard, close look at it," Raher said.
The plan up for approval at Tuesday's meeting of the Board of Governors works like this:
A client -- or a lawyer, for that matter -- can submit a petition to the proposed Fee Arbitration Board, along with a $10 filing fee. The committee hopes that charge, which will be waived for those who can't afford it, will deter some frivolous filings.
A board member than would conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if a genuine dispute exists. If there is real disagreement between the lawyer and client, the board member would call the two sides together to seek an amicable solution. If that doesn't work, the board member would ask both sides to consent to binding arbitration by a panel appointed by the board.
If the lawyer who is the target of a complaint refuses to cooperate in arbitration, the panel will determine whether a genuine controversy exists between lawyer and client. If the panel determines there is a real dispute, a lawyer from the D.C. Bar will be appointed to either seek a court-ordered refund or any excessive fee or to defend the client against any suit brought against the client in connection with the disputed fee.
The three-member hearing panel would be selected by lot from citizens and lawyers who make up the arbitration board. Each panel must include at least one lawyer and one lay person. Both sides on the dispute will get one chance, to strike one or all of the members from a panel and ask for replacement -- similar to the jury selection process. And the entire arbitration procedure will be closed to the public.
OBITER: President Carter has nominated J. Jackson Walter to be the director of the Office of Government Ethics. Walter, 39, a 1966 graduate of the Yale Law School, has been both secretary of the Florida Department of Business Regulation and assistant secretary of the state's Department of Labor and Employment Security . . . The Denver-based law firm of Holland & Hart recently opened a Washington office, where Jerome C. Muys is a new partner, James R. Walpole, former senior counsel with the American Mining Congress, and Roberta L. Halladay have become associates with the firm and partner R. Brooke Jackson has relocated to Washington . . . Linda Lazarus has left Lobel, Novins & Lamont for a post as special assistant to Roma Stewart at the civil rights division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare . . . Barbara A. Corpew has resigned from the city's Public Defender Service where she was a senior felony trial attorney and taken a job with the criminal fraud division at the Department of Justice . . . John P. Hume, former chief of the felony trial section of the U.S. Attorney's office at the D.C. Superior Court, has transferred to the fraud section at the U.S. District Court in January. Alexia Morrison, former deputy chief of the felony trial section has moved up to the chief's job.