Contingency fees and lawyers explained

Contingency Fees and Lawyers Explained
How does the contingency fee model work and what should lawyers and clients bear in mind when using it for cases?

Contingency lawyers should understand exactly where they stand when it comes to their business, and clients should understand exactly what to expect when using their services.

As a model for lawyers and clients, there are very few, if any, comparisons in other sectors, and so it’s important to understand its intricacies in the legal system

In this article, we’ll dive into the intricacies of contingency fee arrangements for California lawyers and their clients. Then, we’ll explore some of the advantages and drawbacks to this kind of fee structure; from both the client’s and the attorney’s perspective.

What is a contingency lawyer, and how do their fees work?

Contingency fees are a long-standing yet unique billing arrangement in the legal world. Instead of paying their lawyer upfront or by the hour, clients agree to pay their lawyer a percentage of the monetary award they receive, should they win their case.

If the case is lost, the client typically owes nothing to the lawyer for their legal services. This system makes legal representation accessible for many individuals who might not have the funds to pay attorneys’ fees upfront.

Admittedly, contingency fee attorneys often elicit mixed perceptions from the public. On one hand, they are seen as champions of justice, providing access to legal representation for individuals who might not otherwise afford it, thereby leveling the playing field against powerful entities.

On the other hand, some view these attorneys as opportunistic, driven more by the prospect of a significant payout than by the intricacies of justice.

Popular media occasionally portrays them as “ambulance chasers,” seeking out high-reward cases at the expense of genuine client advocacy. Regardless of the perspective, it’s undeniable that contingency fee attorneys play a pivotal role in the legal landscape, offering an avenue for many to seek justice in situations that might otherwise be out of reach.

California’s approach to contingency fees

California, being one of the most populous states and a hub of legal activity, has strict guidelines and rules regulating legal contingency fees. This ensures both the protection of clients and the ethical conduct of lawyers. Here are some of the main rules that govern the use of contingency fees in this State:

Written agreement requirement

California Business and Professions Code section 6147 requires that all contingency fee agreements be in written form. This written agreement must detail how the fee will be determined, including the percentage of recovery that will be owed to the attorney at the end of the case. It must also state what happens if the case is settled, goes to trial, or is appealed, and must indicate other expenses to be deducted from the recovery. After any win or settlement, attorneys are required to provide a written statement showing the recovery and the method of its determination.

Reasonable fees

According to California Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5, all fees charged by attorneys must be reasonable – and this includes contingency fees. An unconscionable or overly excessive fee could be deemed unethical. The reasonability of a fee depends on factors such as the complexity of the case, the attorney’s skill, and the risk undertaken by the attorney.

Caps on contingency fees in certain cases

In certain types of cases, California has set statutory caps on contingency fees (see California Business and Professions Code section 6146). For instance, in medical malpractice cases, there’s a sliding scale that limits attorney fees as follows: 40% of the first $50,000 recovered, 33.3% of the next $50,000, 25% of the next $500,000, and 15% of any amount exceeding $600,000.

Potential for fee disputes 

California law ensures clients are protected in the event of disputes over any kind of fees, including contingency fees. If there’s disagreement over the contingency fee, clients have the right to request an arbitration (and the attorney generally must arbitrate the fee dispute once the client requests it). This can be a more streamlined and less confrontational approach than litigation.

Pros and cons of contingency fees

As noted above, there are both benefits and drawbacks to contingency fee arrangements – and this is true from the perspective of both clients and their lawyers. Let’s take a look at these unique fees through each set of lenses.

Advantages and drawbacks of contingency fees: Client’s perspective

Contingency fees are most often used by people who have been injured (physically or financially) but who don’t have the money to pay a large retainer fee plus the hundreds of dollars per hour that most attorneys charge. There are some real advantages to this arrangement for the client, including:


Contingency fee arrangements allow clients without sufficient means to obtain immediate legal representation. This increases access to justice by allowing all people who have been injured to seek their day in court.

Case confidence

Since the lawyer only gets paid if they win the client’s case, their interests are inherently aligned with those of the client. In many cases, this can motivate the attorney to work diligently on the case.

Risk mitigation

Clients are not on the hook for hefty legal fees if they lose at trial. Note, however, that under some arrangements, they still may hold responsibility for hard costs like filing fees.

Of course, not everything about a contingency fee arrangement benefits the client. Here are some of the drawbacks clients may face in these scenarios:

Potential for higher costs

In cases where a client could win a large award, the contingency fee might end up being more than if they had paid an attorney by the hour.

Selective case acceptance

Lawyers may be more selective about the cases they take on, focusing on those with a higher likelihood of success and substantial payout. This can be frustrating for a client whose case involves cutting-edge legal issues or a case that is strong but not a slam-dunk.

Potential conflicts

There can be disagreements between the attorney and client about settlement offers, as both have a financial stake in the outcome. The attorney may want to take an early settlement that offers a sure payout, whereas the client may want to take the case all the way to trial, just to prove a point.

Advantages and drawbacks of contingency fees: Lawyer’s perspective

Contingency fee arrangements can be a double-edged sword for attorneys. While they offer the potential for vast rewards, they also come with inherent risks. Let’s first take a look at the upsides:

Higher potential earnings

In cases where significant settlements or awards are secured, the percentage-based fee can amount to much more than what hourly billing would yield.

Attracting more clients

Many clients, especially those without the means to afford hourly fees, may be more willing to initiate legal action if they know they won’t have to pay unless they win.

Aligned interests

Since payment depends on a successful outcome, lawyers and clients often find their goals and motivations are closely aligned. This can foster a stronger attorney-client relationship.

Marketing appeal

Promoting a “no win, no fee” approach can be an effective marketing tool, drawing in clients who might otherwise not seek out an attorney.

Of course, there are significant drawbacks for an attorney in taking on a contingency fee case. Here are some of the top considerations:

Cash flow challenges

Contingency cases can take months or even years to resolve. This can lead to periods without income from these cases, potentially creating financial strain. Indeed, if a lawyer is just starting out and doesn’t have sufficient capital to keep their business running without income, contingency fee cases can be a big drain on their time without seeing any immediate financial reward.

Financial risk

If a case is lost or yields a lower-than-expected settlement, the lawyer might not recover the costs they invested or be adequately compensated for their time. In taking on contingency cases, lawyers often try to predict whether the ultimate payout will equate to what they could have charged on an hourly basis. Of course, there are no guarantees, as even the best case can go south in front of the wrong jury.

Selective case acceptance

The need to gauge the potential success of a case can mean turning down many clients, possibly missing out on cases that had unanticipated merit.

Contingency fee arrangements offer both advantages and challenges for everyone involved. They remain attractive for clients as they provide a means to pursue legal action without immediate out-of-pocket expenses. This is especially important when the client needs to level the playing field against well-funded opponents.

From the lawyer’s perspective, these arrangements present the opportunity for substantial earnings, especially in high-value cases, and can attract a broader clientele. Yet, they also come with substantial professional and financial risks.

Ultimately, contingency fees are so beneficial to both clients and lawyers that they will continue to be a critical component of our justice system for generations to come.


In conclusion, the intricacies of contingency fee arrangements in California highlight the importance of clear guidelines for lawyers and clients. The state’s regulations, including written agreement requirements, reasonable fee standards, and caps on fees in specific cases, serve as a model for ethical practice.

Contingency fees offer access to justice for clients, fostering aligned interests and motivation for attorneys to secure positive outcomes. However, challenges such as potential higher costs and selective case acceptance exist.

From a lawyer’s perspective, while contingency fees present opportunities for higher earnings and client attraction, they bring cash flow challenges and financial risks.

Despite these complexities, the benefits of accessibility and a shared commitment to success ensure that contingency fees will remain a vital component of the legal landscape, contributing to a more inclusive and balanced justice system.

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