Disputes between neighbors over a fallen tree or a fence line can be extremely emotional. And when these disputes turn into litigation, this heated emotion can make it very expensive for your client. Here are 5 tips to make sure that at least your attorney fees get paid in the end.
When dealing with a neighbor dispute case, always advise your client to think carefully before suing. Explain that it may end up costing more to sue than he or she will actually recover in damages. But if your client is still raring to go, here are five things to consider to make sure that you’re never the loser when handling a neighbor dispute case:
- Use a written fee agreement. Written fee agreements are generally required under Bus & P C §6148 when the client’s total expense, including attorney fees, will foreseeably exceed $1000. A fee agreement is also required when the services are performed on a contingency fee basis (Bus & P C §6147), but that’s generally a bad idea in a neighbor dispute given the contentious nature of these claims and the low prospect for a large recovery. A fee agreement must spell out how compensation will be earned, such as a flat fee or an hourly rate, the general nature of the services to be performed, and the respective duties of the attorney and client. Bus & P C §6148(a).
- Get an advance. It’s generally a good idea to get an advance against fees to cover the estimated time involved. How much to get depends on what actions you’re going to take. For example, if you’re just writing letters and trying to negotiate with opposing counsel, you may want to ask for a minimum of $1000. If the case will go to mediation or neighbor dispute resolution, you could ask for that amount plus the anticipated time and costs related to the dispute resolution session. If a lawsuit is anticipated, you may decide to ask for $7500 or more and ask the client to keep an additional $1000 in your trust account after billing more than $6500 in time and costs.
- Consider a flat fee. In some situations, you may decide that the best course of action, at least initially, is to simply help the client write a letter to send in his or her own name to the neighbor in the dispute (assuming that the neighbor isn’t represented by counsel). For this work, maybe charge a flat fee for the time spent drafting the letter rather than an hourly rate.
- Explore limited scope representation. Limited scope representation (sometimes called unbundling) is a “relationship between an attorney and a person seeking legal services in which they have agreed that the scope of the legal services will be limited to specific tasks that the attorney will perform for the person.” Cal Rules of Ct 3.35(a). If your client has limited means, maybe explore limited scope services for a flat fee. Limited scope representation could include, e.g., preparing pleadings and other court papers for the client to file in pro per.
- When representing a group of neighbors. When you represent a group of neighbors who are, e.g., opposing a proposed zoning change or issuance of a zoning permit before a planning commission, city council, or board of supervisors, you will typically work on an hourly fee basis, but you may agree to collect the retainer proportionally from each of the neighbors involved.
CEB’s new book Neighbor Disputes: Law and Litigation covers the substantive issues involved in the most common neighbor disputes, as well as the always critical issues around getting paid for your work on these cases. Check out our video for this book. For more info on attorney fee agreements generally, including sample forms and checklists, turn to CEB’s Fee Agreement Forms Manual.
Related blog posts:
- Suing Your Client to Get Paid
- The Lifeblood of Your Practice: Getting Your Attorney Fees
- Analyzing Insurance Policies Step by Step
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