Attorney Fees and the End of the Relationship

It is the general rule in the United States, and New York that the client, either for good cause or for no cause, may terminate an attorney's representation at any time.

While the difference between "for cause" and "no cause" has been endlessly debated, a "for cause" termination may be based upon misconduct which does not rise to the level of attorney malpractice.


Where the discharge is for cause, the attorney has no right to compensation, regardless of the agreement between the attorney and the client. Traditional contract principles are not always applied to govern disputes between attorneys and clients. Where the discharge is for cause, the attorney has no right to compensation or a retaining lien. When discharged without good cause, compensation is measured by the fair and reasonable value of the services rendered whether that is more or less than the amount provided in the contract or retainer agreement. The attorney is limited to recovering in quantum meruit.

The courts possess authority to supervise fees for legal services. Quantum meruit means, "as much as he deserved, premised upon an implied promise to pay as much as reasonable. Put in short, quantum meruit is the fair and reasonable value of the services rendered, which may be more or less than the amount provided in the contract or retainer agreement. It is determined by taking into consideration the character of the services, the nature and importance of the litigation, the degree of responsibility, the amount or value involved, the length of time spent, the ability, skill and experience required, the character, qualifications and standing of the attorney and the results achieved. The recovery is not limited to the amount billed or the original terms of the retainer agreement, and may be less or more than the amount, which might have been recovered under a contingency fee.


Attorney malpractice arises in matrimonial settings too. In another recent successful case, Plaintiff -wife had a history of suicide attempts, which were one of the bases of husband's claim of cruel and inhuman treatment. Plaintiff had a history of psychiatric hospitalizations. Days after her release, her attorney and she attended a court hearing on custody, which turned into a settlement of the entire divorce. At the time, she was still on psychotropic medication, and only days out of the in-patient hospitalization. This attorney malpractice matter was settled for $350,000.

Attorney malpractice case arise in unexpected circumstances and may be more vital and valuable than expected. Analysis of the four elements of attorney malpractice is required to determine whether a case exists, and may successfully be prosecuted. As always, the elements are: professional relationship, deviation, proximate cause [including the "but for" element,] and damages.

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