Nov 20, 2007

HALT Finds Fee Dispute Programs Not Making the Grade

This article is posted with permission from HALT, the nation's premiere law-reform advocacy organization.

National Study Reveals Few Checks on Skyrocketing Legal Fees

The nation's first comprehensive evaluation of the programs that resolve lawyer-client fee disputes revealed that these programs are mostly empty promises. To shine a light on the out-of-court systems designed to help clients conveniently settle bill conflicts with attorneys, HALT released its 2007 Fee Arbitration Report Card, ranking lawyer-client fee arbitration forums in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

"The most pervasive complaint about lawyers is that their fees are too high for the work done," stated HALT Senior Counsel Suzanne M. Blonder. "But in evaluating the programs established to settle these disputes between clients and lawyers, our Report Card found a system plagued by an appalling pattern of biased procedures, insufficient resources, and little enforcement."

Of the 51 jurisdictions surveyed, 38 received grades below C. Three--New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia--flunked. Another eight, including some with large client populations, like Illinois and Ohio, received Incompletes because they do not offer statewide systems to settle lawyer-client bill conflicts. Taking top honors on the Report Card was the District of Columbia, followed closely by arbitration programs in Maine, New Jersey, New York, and California. But even those states only scored a B average.

HALT's Report Card graded fee arbitration systems in six categories: (1) whether lawyers are required to participate in binding arbitration at a client's request; (2) the ease of initiating arbitration; (3) the amount of state bar publicity of fee arbitration; (4) the program's reliance on non-lawyer arbitrators; (5) whether non-binding mediation is offered in addition to arbitration; and (6) how the system enforces awards.

While this is HALT's first report card on fee arbitration, its previous Lawyer Discipline Report Cards conducted studies of the lawyer discipline system that have led states to make critical improvements. When the group ranked Pennsylvania's lawyer discipline system dead last in 2002, the state's disciplinary board collaborated with HALT, raised its budget by 25 percent, and increased its ranking to the fifth best lawyer discipline system in the nation. HALT hopes its Fee Arbitration Report Card will galvanize state bars and courts to take similar strides so that the fee arbitration system lives up to its promise of conveniently and effectively resolving everyday fee disputes between lawyers and clients.

"By allowing lawyers to refuse participation in the fee arbitration process, hiding information from the public, placing roadblocks in front of consumers, and stacking arbitration panels with attorneys, fee arbitration programs across the country are routinely failing to provide a much-needed service to American legal consumers," stated Blonder. "Until there is meaningful reform, the legal profession has only itself to blame for the public consensus that lawyer fees are out of control and going unregulated."

A copy of each state's 2007 Fee Arbitration Report Card, a national comparison, and other consumer resources are available at www.halt.org.

For daily information about legal fees, bookmark Rich Stim's amazing blog "What Price Justice?".