Is it permissible under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct for a lawyer to include in an employment contract an agreement that the amount initially paid by a client with respect to a matter is a “non-refundable retainer” that includes payment for all the lawyer’s services on the matter up to the time of trial?
STATEMENT OF FACTS
A lawyer proposes to enter into an employment agreement with a client providing that the client will pay at the outset an amount denominated a “non-refundable retainer” that will cover all services of the lawyer on the matter up to the time of any trial in the matter. The proposed agreement also states that, if a trial is necessary in the matter, the client will be required to pay additional legal fees for services at and after trial. The lawyer proposes to deposit the client’s initial payment in the lawyer’s operating account.
Rule 1.04(a) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not enter an arrangement for an illegal or unconscionable fee and that a fee is unconscionable “if a competent lawyer could not form a reasonable belief that the fee is reasonable.” Rule 1.04(b) sets forth certain factors that may be considered, along with any other relevant factors not specifically listed, in determining the reasonableness of a fee for legal services. In the case of a non-refundable retainer, the factor specified in Rule 1.04(b)(2) is of particular relevance: “the likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer . . . .”
Rule 1.14 deals in part with a lawyer’s handling of funds belonging in whole or in part to the client and requires that such funds when held by a lawyer be kept in a “trust” or “escrow” account separate from the lawyer’s operating account.
Two prior opinions of this Committee have addressed the relationship between the rules now embodied in Rules 1.04 and 1.14.
In Professional Ethics Committee Opinion 391 (February 1978), this Committee concluded that an advance fee denominated a “non-refundable retainer” belongs entirely to the lawyer at the time it is received because the fee is earned at the time the fee is received and therefore the non-refundable retainer may be placed in the lawyer’s operating account. Opinion 391 also concluded that an advance fee that represents payment for services not yet rendered and that is therefore refundable belongs at least in part to the client at the time the funds come into the possession of the lawyer and, therefore, the amount paid must be deposited into a separate trust account to comply with the requirements of what is now Rule 1.14(a). Opinion 391 concluded further that, when a client provides to a lawyer one check that represents both a non-refundable retainer and a refundable advance payment, the entire check should be deposited into a trust account and the funds that represent the non-refundable retainer may then be transferred immediately into the lawyer’s operating account.
This Committee addressed non-refundable retainers again in Opinion 431 (June 1986). Opinion 431 concluded that Opinion 391 remained viable and that non-refundable retainers are not inherently unethical “but must be utilized with caution.” Opinion 431 additionally concluded that Opinion 391 was overruled “to the extent that it states that every retainer designated as non-refundable is earned at the time it is received.” Opinion 431 described a non-refundable retainer (sometimes referred to in Opinion 431 as a “true retainer”) in the following terms:
“A true [non-refundable] retainer, however, is not a payment for services. It is an advance fee to secure a lawyer's services, and remunerate him for loss of the opportunity to accept other employment. . . . . If the lawyer can substantiate that other employment will probably be lost by obligating himself to represent the client, then the retainer fee should be deemed earned at the moment it is received. If, however, the client discharges the attorney for cause before any opportunities have been lost, or if the attorney withdraws voluntarily, then the attorney should refund an equitable portion of the retainer.”
Thus a non-refundable retainer (as that term is used in this opinion) is not a payment for services but is rather a payment to secure a lawyer’s services and to compensate him for the loss of opportunities for other employment. See also Cluck v. Commission for Lawyer Discipline, 214 S.W.3d 736 (Tex. App.-Austin 2007, no pet.).
It is important to note that the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct do not prohibit a lawyer from entering into an agreement with a client that requires the payment of a fixed fee at the beginning of the representation. The Committee also notes that the term “non-refundable retainer,” as commonly used to refer, as in this opinion, to an initial payment solely to secure a lawyer's availability for future services, may be misleading in some circumstances. Opinion 431 recognized in the excerpt quoted above that a retainer solely to secure a lawyer’s future availability, which is fully earned at the time received, would nonetheless have to be refunded at least in part if the lawyer were discharged for cause after receiving the retainer but before he had lost opportunities for other employment or if the lawyer withdrew voluntarily. However, the fact that an amount received by a lawyer as a true non-refundable retainer may later in certain unusual circumstances have to be at least partially refunded does not negate the fact that such amount has been earned and under the Texas Disciplinary Rules may be deposited in the lawyer’s operating account rather than being subject to a requirement that the amount must be held in a trust or escrow account.
In view of Opinions 391 and 431, the result in this case is clear. A legal fee relating to future services is a non-refundable retainer at the time received only if the fee in its entirety is a reasonable fee to secure the availability of a lawyer’s future services and compensate the lawyer for the preclusion of other employment that results from the acceptance of employment for the client. A non-refundable retainer meeting this standard and agreed to by the client is earned at the time it is received and may be deposited in the lawyer’s operating account. However, any payment for services not yet completed does not meet the strict requirements for a non-refundable retainer (as that term is used in this opinion) and must be deposited in the lawyer’s trust or escrow account. Consequently, it is a violation of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct for a lawyer to agree with a client that a fee is non-refundable upon receipt, whether or not it is designated a “non-refundable retainer,” if that fee is not in its entirety a reasonable fee solely for the lawyer’s agreement to accept employment in the matter. A lawyer is not permitted to enter into an agreement with a client for a payment that is denominated a “non-refundable retainer” but that includes payment for the provision of future legal services rather than solely for the availability of future services. Such a fee arrangement would not be reasonable under Rule 1.04(a) and (b), and placing the entire payment, which has not been fully earned, in a lawyer’s operating account would violate the requirements of Rule 1.14 to keep funds in a separate trust or escrow account when funds have been received from a client but have not yet been earned.
When considering these issues it is important to keep in mind the purposes behind Rule 1.14. Segregating a client’s funds into a trust or escrow account rather than placing the funds in a lawyer’s operating account will not protect a client from a lawyer who for whatever reason determines intentionally to misuse a client’s funds. Segregating the client’s funds in a trust or escrow account may however protect the client’s funds from the lawyer’s creditors in situations where the lawyer’s assets are less than his liabilities and the lawyer’s assets must be liquidated to attempt to satisfy the lawyer’s liabilities. In those situations, client funds in an escrow or trust account may be protected from the reach of the lawyer’s creditors.
Accordingly, if a lawyer proposes to enter into an agreement with a client to receive an appropriate non-refundable retainer meeting the requirements for such a retainer and also to receive an advance payment for future services (regardless of whether the amount for future services is determined on a time basis, a fixed fee basis, or some other basis appropriate in the circumstances), the non-refundable retainer must be treated separately from the advance payment for services. Only the payment meeting the requirements for a true non-refundable retainer may be so denominated in the agreement with the client and deposited in the lawyer’s operating account. Any advance payment amount not meeting the requirements for a non-refundable retainer must be deposited in a trust or escrow account from which amounts may be transferred to the lawyer’s operating account only when earned under the terms of the agreement with the client.
It is not permissible under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct for a lawyer to include in an employment contract an agreement that the amount paid by a client with respect to a matter is a “non-refundable retainer” if that amount includes payment for the lawyer’s services on the matter up to the time of trial.
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