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MD: Choose Your Words Wisely: Retainer Agreements Create Contractual Obligations

Abramson v. Wildman, 184 Md.App.189, 964 A.2d 703 (2009)

MD: Underlying Custody Dispute

Student Contributor: Vanessa L. Wachira

Facts: Ronald Wildman (Client) retained Joel Abramson (Attorney) to advise and represent him in a custody dispute. The retainer agreement informed Client that he could “expect [Attorney’s] firm to be both sensitive and professionally responsive to [his] situation.” Attorney filed a breach of contract action against Client seeking recovery of $13,000 in unpaid legal fees. Client counterclaimed for $24,525 alleging breach of contract for Attorney’s failure to represent him in a professionally responsive manner. Specifically, Client alleged Attorney a) prepared and presented a false financial statement to the court; b) failed to timely advise him of a subpoena requesting certain documents; c) failed to present competent evidence and testimony of his financial circumstances; d) failed to properly advise him of the merits of his case and his settlement options; and e) charged him for unnecessary and duplicative work. At trial, the jury found in Client’s favor and awarded him $24,525—the total fee Client had paid to Attorney.

Issue: Does an attorney’s written promise to be “professionally responsive” create an express contractual obligation to provide competent legal advice and representation, such that a client alleging breach of that duty may assert his claim as an action in contract?

Ruling: Yes.  When an attorney makes an express promise of professional responsibility, he creates a contractual obligation to provide his client with legal services that reflect the standard of competence required by his profession. Under Maryland case law, an attorney is required to exercise reasonable “care and diligence” as well as certain “degree of professional skill and knowledge.” Cochrane v. Little, 71 Md. 323, 331-32, 18 A. 698 (1889).
Here, the retainer agreement contained a specific promise that Attorney would “be professionally responsive,” thus creating an express contractual obligation. Consequently, Attorney’s failure to conform to accepted professional standards was enforceable as a breach of express contract. Moreover, even in the absence of the written promise of professional responsibility, under the “law of the place” doctrine, existing laws (including that cited above) “enter into and form part of a contract as if ‘expressly’ referred to or incorporated in its terms.” As the court so aptly concluded, although “‘[f]ew modern actions against attorneys are for breach of a written or express contract,’ this is one of them.”

Lesson: Whether or not a retainer agreement contains an express promise of professional responsibility, a lawyer will be contractually obligated to provide competent legal advice and representation. Also, if a lawyer plans to sue a client for unpaid fees, he should first make sure he’s earned them.

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Posted in: Engagement, Family Law, Maryland