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The contingency fee agreement with a lawyer is an agreement whereby the client does not have to pay money upfront and in exchange, the lawyer agrees to provide legal services for a percentage of any verdict or award the attorney achieves for the client. The contingency fee system is often attacked by monied elements of American society as encouraging needless lawsuits. Particularly beginning in the 1980’s, big business and the insurance industry began to attack contingency fee agreements with lawyers claiming the contingency fee system results in frivolous lawsuits. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the contingency fee system is vital to American civil justice.
First, the contingency fee system is the average American citizen’s “keys to the courthouse.” The great majority of everyday Americans cannot afford to pay the prevailing hourly rates for professional legal services. Without the option of hiring counsel on a contingency fee basis, most Americans would be denied justice, no matter how just their cause. Second, contingency fees are already limited by each state’s ethical rules to assure clients are not exploited. Third, lawyers accept enormous risks of not only not getting paid, but losing large sums of expenses they advance in the prosecution of cases under contingency fee agreements. So, the contingency fee attorney is certainly not encouraged to prosecute meritless cases. Finally, with a contingency fee arrangement, the interests of the attorney and client are aligned toward the goal of a just outcome for the client as soon as practicable. That is not the case with hourly fee agreements where the attorneys stop getting paid when the case is resolved for the client.
If you hear anyone pushing for limits on contingency fees, you can bet they can afford to pay hourly rates to lawyers when they need them. Don’t let them throw away your keys to the courthouse.