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Why I Stopped Offering Flat Fee Contracts

I used to represent landlords using flat fees. No more…. And I strongly caution you to avoid such an arrangement. You need to avoid a situation where your attorney is unmotivated to provide you the most effective representation possible. In addition, flat fee arrangements too often result in client confusion and disappointment. It is really difficult for attorneys to manage client’s expectations with these agreements.
I will admit one of my main reasons for stopping the use of flat fees in eviction cases is that some of my clients would abuse the arrangement. I had one client who expected to me spend an hour on the phone with her nearly every other day so she could vent about how unfair the system was to landlords. I lost a lot of money on her case because of the amount of time I had to contribute. Worse – I had several other clients just like her. But I also noticed flat fee arrangements were sometimes bad for the client.
Think about how hard it would be to stay motived about working for someone when you know you aren’t going to get paid (and you didn’t sign up as a volunteer!). That’s often the situation flat fee eviction attorneys find themselves in. When my client’s tenants would appeal or file bankruptcy, I found myself having to work on my client’s eviction several months longer than a standard, plane-Jane eviction. When this happened, I could be paid at or below minimum wage. I have what would probably be described as an above-average level of character (despite being a lawyer). I would, therefore, honor the contract I entered into with my client. But it was REALLY hard to stay motivated about a case when I was initially expecting to be paid a fair price for my work.
But the flat fee sword cuts both ways! Quite often tenants will freak out when they are facing an eviction. They will pack up and leave before the eviction trial, fearing the Constables will kick in their door at any time. Creating that fear and uncertainty is exactly the thing for which my clients are paying me! But several of my clients who enjoyed this benefit also complained their flat fee was unfair because they felt like they paid me for a trial, yet received much less.
Managing client expectations was another challenge; clients sometimes felt as though my flat fee contracts had some “gotcha’s.” To avoid being overworked and underpaid, I would narrowly tailor my flat fee client agreements. For example, my attorney-client agreements would exclude representation in a second appeal to the Court of Appeals. I was always careful to cover this verbally with my clients at the time I presented my agreement to them. But nearly EVERYTIME I notified my client that their tenant appealed a second time to a Court of Appeals, my client was disappointed about having to enter into a new attorney-client agreement with me.
I am well aware that most of my clients have several rental properties, and will need my services again. So I certainly want to treat them fairly and – more importantly – ensure they walk away from my office feeling as though I did, in fact, treat them equitably. Sadly, flat fee arrangements make it difficult to achieve this objective. By working with an attorney on a client agreement which includes a reasonable hourly rate, you are going to ensure you do not end up overpaying should your tenant vacate earlier than expected. True, you will pay more should your tenant elect to drag out the process. But this arrangement also ensures your eviction attorney will continue to make your case a priority.