By Ally Kennedy, Founder of AMIGA
The legal services contract is arguably the most important document in the legal process. A good contract lays out the expectations of the client and attorney. It establishes the scope of the representation, the payment terms, consequences for non-payment and late payment, and more. Even if you have a great contract in place, it is always a good idea to check in and make sure that it reflects your current office policies and procedures. If there is a “pain point” with clients, such as excessive calls and emails and the like, be sure to add in language to address that certain circumstance and your procedure for handling it.
Here are a few tips for writing a great contract:
1. Check out the RPC's regarding handling of client funds
Whether you handle your work in flat fees, hourly, or contingency, it is important to check out your state’s RPC’s to make sure that you have the necessary language in your contract about the handling of client funds. For example, a flat fee contract should state that flat fee payment is is property of the law firm and is not placed into a trust account. It is also a good idea to include information about the client’s rights if the contract is cancelled before it is finished and the circumstances which would warrant a refund.
2. Cover all unforeseen circumstances
We all have come across unforeseen circumstances such as undisclosed criminal history, a baseless Request for Evidence, a marriage in a different country that has not been resolved, and more. Your contract should address specifically how you will handle these circumstances. (We call it the “extra work clause.”) You can state that any undisclosed information that is relevant to the case can be grounds for withdrawal and cancellation of the contract and/or grounds for additional charges. Our firm has decided to bill by the hour for additional work caused by undisclosed information and we lay out the billable attorney and legal assistant time.
We have included a clause that states that there will be a minimum fee for responding to requests for evidence, though depending on the complexity there could be additional fees.
You can determine what works best for you and your office in handling these situations in terms of language and fees. Keep in mind that this is a work in progress. You may need to update and change the language as you go.
3. Outline your representation
The contract is the opportune time to include the exact steps that you will take in the case and what is and is not included. This is something that you can use to refer to in the event that additional work comes up.
For example, in an adjustment of status case, you can write the following:
- Prepare AOS forms
- Prepare AOS legal argument
- Review forms and documents with clients before submission
- Prepare clients for AOS interview (no more than 2 practice interviews)
- Attend 1 AOS interview
- Communicate with clients throughout the process
- Please note that any responses to Requests for Evidence are not included in the representation.
If you want to get more detailed than that, feel free. Though the contract separately lists out how responses to Requests for Evidence are handled, in certain case types (like I-601A’s) where there is a high probability of an RFE it is a good idea to highlight more than once that an RFE response is not included in the price.
Enumerating the number of hearings and interviews that you will attend is becoming increasingly important especially given the delays in the EOIR. Sometimes a case can be passed to a new judge which could add an additional 1-2 MCH’s to a case. Locally there is a judge who is known for scheduling several ICH’s. Even though you know that isn’t what was anticipated in your representation, the client likely will not understand since it is the first time he is going through removal proceedings. Thus, it is important to protect yourself and make sure you get paid for the valuable additional work that you do.
4. Address Costs Explicitly
Every cost that is incurred in a case should be either absorbed by the firm or passed along to the client. If you are going to pass the costs along to the client, it is important to lay out all of the anticipated costs in the case. This includes out of office fees for out of town hearings, mailing costs, copies, expert statements, filing fees, and more.
Let me add a word on translations. Many firms do not charge for translation fees of documents which is a mistake because doing free translations goes against your bottom line. Most immigration attorneys who do flat fees are already undercutting their fees and not charging what a case actually costs. Adding translations on an already underearning case requires throwing more valuable time in and not getting paid. Maybe, maybe, you can do an extract of a birth certificate as part of the price. However, we all know those cases where there are stacks of letters and documents that are not written in English and we have to spend time translating. (You know the ones where there are 4 pages with not one punctuation mark…) This is time consuming yet important to the case so it is something for which you should be compensated.
5. No Guarantees Clause
Because the final result in a case is not in our hands, it is important that it be clearly stated in the contract. Oftentimes when a case is denied, a client understandably wants to blame someone... and that person is often the lawyer. Hence, the No Guarantees Clause.
The No Guarantees Clause should be in bold and all caps above the signature line in the contract stating that no specific outcome has been guaranteed in the case. (At least until immigration lawyers take over the White House and we change the handling of these cases. We can dream, right?)
Are you too busy to write up a contract? Don’t feel like updating an outdated contract? As always, Amiga has your back! We have a done-for-you Flat Fee Contract in English and Spanish, right here with the rest of our Amiga Docs. Let us do the busy work so you can spend more time doing what you love.
What other tips do you have for creating a great contract?
About your Ally in Life, Business and Law:
Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy is a national award-winning attorney and the founder of AMIGA Lawyers and Alexandra Kennedy Immigration Law.. After becoming a mother, and in a matter of 3 months, Ally transformed her practice from earning in pesos to earning 6-figures and she is passionate about teaching attorneys how they can do the same. Ally empowers lawyers to be the CEOs of their law firms with her weekly blog, webinars, and conferences where she teaches step-by-step how to do the work they love while running a profitable legal business. Ally lives outside of Seattle with her partner and their 5 children.