Fee mediation: could it work for you and your client?

It has perhaps happened to you . A client of your firm has always been satisfied with the legal work done for him in his small business. But when the firm represents him in a separation from his wife, the first billing proves a shock - he is upset and doesn't understand why the family matter costs so much in comparison to his other legal bills. Or you have a litigation client who is unhappy over a final bill. She says she simply won't pay it and tells you she plans to go to fee review.

It's always best for lawyers to explain fees and set budgets in advance, manage client expectations and, when possible, try to work things out directly with a client who has concerns about a billing. When that doesn't work, is there an alternative to fee review?

Last year the Law Society introduced a new voluntary fee mediation program to help clients and lawyers settle fee disputes without going to court or making a complaint to the Law Society.

The Society is fortunate to have a roster of over 40 highly experienced lawyer and non-lawyer mediators across the province who have volunteered to conduct mediations on request.

Either a client or a lawyer may apply for mediation by contacting the Law Society. If both agree to mediate, they will be referred to a mediator who will provide up to three hours of service. Each party must contribute $25, which the Society provides to the mediator as an honorarium. The mediation is confidential and conducted on a "without prejudice" basis. The Law Society is notified by the mediator on whether the mediation was successful, but receives no details of either the mediation or the specific resolution.

Participation in the program is an informal alternative to fee review that may be attractive to clients and lawyers and may help maintain their relationship. As mediation may not result in a settlement of a dispute, fee review remains available for either party, provided the time limits allow. Mediation is not available if a bill has already been the subject of fee review.

If you think fee mediation might assist you and a client, please contact Lynne Knights, Complaints Officer, at tel. (604) 669-2533 (toll-free in B.C. 1-800-903-5300), fax (604) 605-5399 or email at lknights@lsbc.org.