IT IS NO WONDER that most of the lawyers in the Maryland legislature, not to mention the state's legal establishment, are unhappy about the proposal on legal fees that Del. David L. Schull has put before them. It lays bare one of the tidier devices created by the legal profession to keep its members solvent. Why would anybody, especially a lawyer like Mr. Schull, want to drag such a subject out of the closet?
The answer is that, for lawyers with a conscience, the traditional way in which fees are set for the handling of estates is truly disturbing. The fees are generally determined by the dollar value of the estates and have no relationship to the amount of work the lawyers actually do. In Maryland the going rate is 10 percent of the first $20,000 and 4 percent of the rest.
The case Mr. Schull trotted out for his colleagues makes the point. Under the percentages formula, the customary fee for the $113,103 estate of a Kensington women would have been $5,724. The amount of time required to do the necessary legal work was three hours. The hourly rate? Only $1,908. Even a lawyer could live pretty well by working one hour a week at that price. e
The case, no doubt, is unusual. The woman's financial and legal affairs were obviously in excellent shape when she died. But it is not that unusual. A $113,000 estate has to be in a real mess before its disposition requires 57 hours (at $100 an hour) of legal talent. Given the emphasis by lawyers these days on estate planning, writing wills and so on, the amount of time necessary to settle estates in the future should dwindle.
Why, then, a fixed fee? For one thing, it's simple and easy to explain. It may even sound better to heirs than an hourly rate. (somehow, 4 percent of everything over $20,000 doesn't sound as outrageous as, say $100 an hour.) Besides, that's the way things have always been done. As for those lawyers who are bothered about it, the system lets them salve their conscience by reflecting on the idea that they are not overcharging anyone who actually worked for the money; they are only taking a cut from those who are inheriting it.
All of these rationales pale before the proposal that lawyers should get paid only for the work they do. Percentage fees, be they for settling estates or handling automobile accident cases, are generally a rip-off. Some lawyers, to be sure, can't stomach them; but most, as the reaction in Annapolis to Mr. Scull's proposal demonstrates, think they are just dandy. There is little chance that this legislature, or any other, will do anything about this situation this year. But sooner or later lawyers are going to have to accept, or have imposed on them, the revolutionary idea that how much they charge a client should be related to how much work they do.