How can we get a lawyer to give back unearned fees?

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Question:

How can you make an attorney accountable for handling money paid to him in fees? This attorney asked for an additional $750 to review some case law and to appear in court. He ended up not having to appear in court, as the judge gave a written decision. When we asked for part of the $750 to be returned, he finally sent us an itemized statement showing an inaccurate amount received from us and that still more is owed by us. We have canceled checks as proof. We have tried to get help from our state's bar association, but it was worthless.

Answer:

Best to simply write the lawyer a letter stating that the whole amount has been paid and enclosing a photocopy of the checks. Since you paid the fellow's bills without protest, it's probably too late to get your money back.

A word to the wise: If you ever need a lawyer again, make sure to sign a written agreement specifying exactly what the lawyer will do for you, how you will be charged (hourly rate, fixed fee, or contingency), and when you'll be billed. For some cases (an uncontested divorce, bankruptcy, or basic will), a fixed fee arrangement is probably your best bet.  In other situations, you might be better off with an hourly rate agreement (but make sure you have a cap). Don't pay a big up-front retainer; insist on a pay-as-you-go approach. And shop around if the lawyer's proposed fees sound high.

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