Like Many Businesses, Oklahoma Attorneys Struggle to Collect Fees

Article excerpt

Oklahoma City family law attorney and litigator Laura McConnell- Corbyn knows what it's like to encounter a client who cannot, or for some reason will not, pay legal fees.

Lawsuits and family legal situations can get sticky, leaving participants upset for one reason or another, even if they win their case.

"Sometimes, it's because that individual just hit a hard time and they don't have the money to pay," McConnell-Corbyn said. "It's not that they're dissatisfied or that they're bad people."

Other times, she said, clients may intentionally choose not to pay.

"In both of those situations, we have ethical responsibilities," McConnell-Corbyn said. "If we are going to cease or terminate a representation, we have to do it in such a way that isn't going to cause a terrible impact on our client."

If such a circumstance occurs in the middle of certain types of litigation, she said, attorneys must seek court permission to withdraw.

"There are sometimes situations where I might be involved in a matter and it's clear to me that I'm not going to get paid, or the client's going to have difficulty paying me," she said. "If I ask the court for permission to withdraw, the court may well say no."

For example, McConnell-Corbyn, who is with the Hartzog Conger law firm, said courts are reluctant to leave clients unrepresented immediately before a trial.

"I'm a part of a bigger process in litigation, using the court system, and being involved in that, I can't just abandon the client or the court system," she said.

Absent a matter where an attorney has entered an appearance and must receive the court's permission to withdraw, McConnell-Corbyn said she tries to watch billings and communicate with clients about their case's status, talking with them about any potential problems she sees developing.

She tries to determine whether the client has just hit a rough financial patch or merely doesn't want to pay.

"When I determine that it's a client that isn't going to pay, I have a communication with them about what's going on," McConnell- Corbyn said. "I try to withdraw in a manner that will cause them the least amount of discomfort. But we are entitled to be paid for our services."

Legal ethics rules allow attorneys to withdraw if a client is not fulfilling his or her contractual obligation to pay, she said.

Appellate work is a separate process.

"I try to structure my retention with a client such that we make a new agreement at the start of an appeal, or they know that I'm being retained for this matter, I'm not being retained for the appeal," she said. "Then if an appeal happens, we talk again and kind of start all over again on the retention."

There's a good reason for that.

"Obviously, if the client owes me a lot of money, I wouldn't want to have an obligation to represent them on an appeal that they might have filed," McConnell-Corbyn said.

It's best, she said, for the attorney and client to go into a legal matter with a clear understanding of what's expected, and how a case might progress. …