When my former law firm sued me for its quantum meruit fee in a case where they failed to advise the client of choice of counsel, I had my own choice to make. I could roll over and pay them their fee or I could stand up and fight on principle. Prior posts concerning the lawsuit filed against GAL can be found here.
I knew that standing up would be important. It would bring the issue to the table. It would cause lawyers to consider the question that I had posed: Do lawyers need to think about their clients first, even before their own interests in a fee? At a recent court hearing, the Judge answered the question I posed with an emphatic "Yes." He berated the attorney from my former law firm who suggested that there was no case or ethics rule that required a law firm to advise their client that they could choose their firm, or the departing attorney as their counsel. While acknowledging that the ethics decisions make it clear that a client’s constitutional choice of counsel should be preserved and that the client should be informed, the former firm argued that ethics rulings are not binding on the court.
I also knew that standing up and fighting would be risking my own fee, which was earned in spades, on the matter. As importantly, I knew that fighting my old firm would drain money and resources, which would otherwise be available to my other clients. It was not an easy decision to fight. Being the natural risk taker that I am, I decided to jump in and stand up with both feet.
After the last hearing wherein the Judge wholeheartedly indorsed my "You must think of the client first" position, I felt vindicated. I felt I had accomplished what it is I had set out to do. I had sent a message myself. I have proven that my message was legitimate. I wasn’t the only one in the world who felt that effectively conspiring against your own client was appropriate behavior. The Judge agreed that an attorney has an ethical duty to inform their client of their right to select counsel.
The settlement demand of the former firm kept dropping and they were looking for a response from me. I tried drafting some settlement letters but quickly realized that by arguing the ethics issues in order to support my settlement number, I was likely sabotaging any chance of settlement. Instead, I decided to invite the attorney in charge of the suit from my former firm for a tour of my office and lunch on me. We had a great pleasant two-hour meeting. At the end, I told him my settlement position, which caused a significant amount of drama. "You can’t send me back with that number," he said. "The case will never settle at the number," he insisted. But I told him it was my bottom line and I was more than happy to litigate to the end. Did they really want a trial on whether or not they met their ethical obligations to the client?
An hour after our lunch concluded and the reality that the case would likely be going on for many more months, a call came in from my counsel indicated that the case was settled at my number. It was over. My position was vindicated. My fee, and part of their fee to cover all of my time and legal expenses in defending the suit, was preserved. Former firm took a significant reduction in their alleged quantum meruit fee.
When I came home, my wife and I celebrated. We didn’t celebrate the settlement money. We celebrated that fact that we stood up for what was right, that we had stood up for the profession. We celebrated that we risked tens of thousands of dollars on something that was bigger than we were. We celebrated that fact that it is sometimes more appropriate to follow your heart, rather than your head.