Law Practice Management

Ethics opinion: Retainer agreement should say what office overhead expenses can be charged


As clients and law firms increasingly focus on cost-cutting, more attention to being paid to expenses that once might have been considered ordinary office overhead but today are being charged to clients.

Surprisingly, there haven’t been a lot of ethics opinions addressing the issue, says the chair of a California bar group’s ethics committee, so the San Diego County Bar Association has weighed in on the topic with an advisory opinion.

“We found that you’ve got a bunch of federal courts that are all over the lot,” partner Ed McIntyre of Solomon Ward Seidenwurm & Smith told the Daily Transcript (sub. req.). “If someone is looking for what they can or cannot do, there wasn’t a lot to look at.”

The best practice is to spell out in a retainer agreement exactly what extra charges can be imposed, McIntyre says. Basic office expenses should be covered as part of the representation, but McIntyre says extras such as required support staff overtime and discovery costs can be added to the bill. Expenses also should be charged in order to recover costs actually incurred and should not be a profit center.

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