The Wisconsin Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit lawyers from charging unreasonably high attorneys fees. The rules do not prohibit lawyers from charging unreasonably low attorneys fees. There is a good reason for this: low attorneys’ fees provide clients with access to justice that they may be otherwise unable to afford. However, what happens when attorneys’ fees become so low that their sole purpose is to drive out the competition? Prior to 1979, the Wisconsin state bar, like many other state bars, published a minimum fee schedule that set forth specific fees below which lawyers were prohibited from charging. The justification for these schedules was that highly competitive behavior between lawyers risked turning the profession into a business, lowering the profession’s integrity. Responding to antitrust concerns, however, the United States Supreme Court soon abolished the use of minimum fee schedules in Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar, holding that they violated the Sherman Act.
In order to protect the integrity of the legal profession, this paper suggests that the Wisconsin Supreme Court amend the Rules of Professional Conduct to prohibit lawyers from charging both unreasonably high and unreasonably low attorneys fees. Specifically, this paper lays out factors that courts should consider in order to determine whether an attorney’s fees are unreasonably low. Like the minimum fee schedules, this rule will protect the public interest by prohibiting lawyers from charging fees that will result in the rendition of inadequate legal services and the destruction of the integrity of the profession. However, unlike the minimum fee schedules, this rule provides attorneys with the independence to take into consideration the client’s individual financial circumstances in setting a specific rate. Particularly given the current economic situation facing the legal profession, this rule is essential to prevent the legal profession from becoming a race-to-the-bottom.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/tim_hogan/1/