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Can No-Fee Retainers Be Marketed as Free Legal Services?

By George Khoury, Esq. on May 16, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One metro-Detroit lawyer is learning a hard lesson on how not to make clients angry: Don't use the word "free" unless you really mean it.

The lawyer is facing quite a bit of controversy and a state bar grievance over the fact that his clients were upset when their "no-fee" agreements for "free" debt defense legal services resulted in them not getting any of their own settlements because fees were deducted from their settlements. And though the retainer agreement is alleged to have spelled out this possibility clearly, as the Detroit Free Press showed, much of the attorney's advertising did not.

No Recovery, No Fee

The usual language that many contingency fee lawyers use to woo clients involves the clear conditional statement: No recovery, no fee. Another popular phrase includes: We don't get paid unless/until you get paid. Notice a pattern?

These phrases do not mislead clients, whereas the Detroit attorney's promise of "100% free" legal help is, arguably, misleading to legal consumers. Now, thanks to the careless use of puffery, that attorney has an important fight on his hands that could have been avoided if only he used more specific puffery to woo his clients. Curiously, the attorney even put up a video of him promising his actual, real-life dad, that he was not lying about providing clients with "free" legal help.

While technically the Detroit lawyer wasn't billing his clients a fee directly, the clients weren't getting services for free, they just weren't paying for it until their cases settled.

Technicalities Matter

When it comes to representing individuals, technicalities matter. The public expects attorneys to be true to their word, especially (or at least) when they're coming to one for help.

For contingency matters, at the outset, it is always best to explain the ins and outs of how you will get paid to avoid future issues. It is quite common for contingency attorneys to have to remind clients after the settlement check comes in that costs get assessed after attorney fees are deducted, as many clients tend to conveniently forget this standard clause.

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