Attorneys charge clients for disbursements. These disbursements may be court fees, fees for court transcripts, for deposition transcripts, for photocopying, for telefaxes, for telephone service, for computerized legal research, for postage, for messengers, for meals, for lodging, and for other necessities.
There is some law on these issues, most of which come up in federal civil rights litigation. Local faxing charges are generally not compensable. Computerized legal research expenses are not always allowable as costs. Excessive fees for photocopying are not permitted. As of yet, there is no settled law on these disbursements.
An attorney's contract to represent the client and for the client to pay the attorney is not the same as other contracts. The client may, at any time, for any reason, terminate the contract, and do so without any penalty. That termination must be determined to be either for cause or without cause. If it is for cause, no compensation is due to the attorney. If it is without cause, then the attorney may be compensated only under quantum meruit.
An attorney is permitted a retaining and a charging lien in New York. The retaining lien allows the attorney to withhold the case documents pending a determination of the attorney fees. The charging lien allows the attorney to collect the fees, as determined, from the proceeds of the case, wherever situated.
Quantum meruit is the reasonable value of the service, determined by a wealth of factors. Beyond the legal fees to which an attorney may be due upon termination, he is due the reasonable out-of-pocket expenses for the service. There is no wide spread agreement on what are reasonable or permissible expenses especially for computerized legal research, photocopying or other potentially "profit center" activities.