Ethics and the Division of Attorney’s Fees
Zachary M. Frost, Esq. Freemont, California
The California Rules of Professional Conduct (CRPC) address when division (or sharing) of attorney’s fees is appropriate and when it is not. Effective November of 2018, the Rules were amended, supplanting former Rules 4-200, 1-320, and 1-600(A) with current Rules 1.5, 1.5.1., and 5.4. While Rule 1.5 speaks to the reasonableness of an attorney’s fee, 1.5.1 addresses the division offees between attorneys, and 5.4 deals with division of such fees with nonattorneys (more particularly, an attorney’s financial and other "arrangements" with nonlawyers). One sure way to avoid running afoul of such Rules is simply to never share or divide fees. This is, unfortunately, many times impractical, and, sometimes, impossible to do. Therefore, with that reality in mind, this article presents the relevant Rules and law for ethically navigating the splitting of fees for the practitioner.
Rule 1.5 is relatively straightforward. It expressly states that an attorney’s fee cannot be unconscionable or illegal. It then enumerates factors to be considered in determining the unconscionability of an attorney’s fees (for example, whether the attorney engaged in fraud in negotiating or setting a fee, the amount of the fee received in relation to the services performed, whether the client gave informed consent to the fee, and so on).