NEWPORT BEACH – While a city in southeast Ventura County grapples with its disputed half-million-dollars' worth of legal fees, an Orange County attorney offered advice for lawyers about how to keep such arguments out of the court system.
Lack of communication is behind many legal fee disputes between attorneys and their clients, said Mark B. Wilson, a partner at Klein & Wilson in Newport Beach.
"That will often plant the seeds of distrust," Wilson told the Northern California Record.
Wilson is a seasoned trial attorney and negotiator who has won almost every case he has tried or arbitrated, losing only one jury trial that was reversed on appeal. His practice represents clients in federal and state courts in matters that include business litigation, legal malpractice, real estate, trade secrets, unfair competition, copyright infringement, construction disputes and commercial unlawful detainer.
Among the seminars that Wilson offers are those that help fellow attorneys avoid disputes, including disagreements over legal fees, with their clients.
"My primary theme is, 'maintain communication with your client,'" he said.
Wilson said he wasn't familiar with a case between the city of Simi Valley and its former attorney to comment directly about the situation but he did point out that with that case, there were options in that litigation besides taking the matter to court.
"They could have settled," he said.
But they didn't. Last year, an arbitration panel found that the city of Simi Valley owes nearly $525,000 in unpaid fees for services rendered during a legal dispute with Colich Construction from 2009 to 2013. In May of 2014, James Negele, principal at the Los Angeles-based law firm Negele & Associates who had done legal work for Simi Valley for about 30 years, sued the city of Simi Valley over the unpaid legal fees. The city claimed it was over-billed for those services.
In September of 2015, the three-member Beverly Hills Bar Association’s arbitration panel sided with Negele, finding the city owed $524,793 as of Sept. 1 of that year for the unpaid legal fees, plus interest. The arbitration panel said that all the fees and costs charged by Negele in the Colich matter were necessary and reasonable.
Last month, the city appealed a Santa Barbara Superior Court judge's ruling that backed the arbitration panel's findings. While actual numbers of attorney-client disputes are hard to come by, litigation like that between the city of Simi Valley and its former attorney is far from rare, Wilson said.
"Lawsuits between attorneys and clients are very common," Wilson said. "I see it all the time."
While client-attorney disputes are common, but not always avoidable, help is available within California's legal community. California's Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act, which make up sections 6200 through 6206 of the State Bar Act, requires attorneys to inform their clients about arbitration options and to participate in arbitration if their clients initiate those proceedings.
The courts in California allow for attorney fee dispute filings after arbitration. The California State Bar Association dedicates one section of its website to what clients should do when they have a dispute with their attorneys and offers a fee arbitration program.
Keeping a client informed about his or her case will go a long way toward keeping that assistance from being required, Wilson said. If there is a new filing in a case, a key date is approaching or something else is about to occur, an attorney should let her or his client know.
"So the client is kept up to speed," he said.
Doing that can make all the difference in prevent attorney-client misunderstandings, Wilson said.
"It really, really helps reduce disputes," he said.