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Contingent Fees, Portfolio Risk and Competition – Calls for Reform

In theory, contingent fee pricing is an elegant way of providing access to justice at a fair and reasonable price. In this column, I try to look at both theory and practice and also at prospects for reform.

Time and materials

Let’s start with a different approach to pricing. Legal work can be done on a “time and materials” basis (to use language from another industry), on a fixed fee basis or on a contingent fee basis. These different approaches shift risk between suppliers and consumers of legal services.

Legal work is still largely priced on a “time and materials” basis. While time spent is not the only factor considered when setting price, it is ordinarily the dominant factor.

Fixed Fees

Legal work is increasingly offered on a fixed fee basis. Where available, this is attractive to clients because of the increased certainty that fixed fees offer. Fixed fees can also allow increased competition as clients can more easily shop for a better price.

Where a fixed fee is agreed, the lawyer has the risk that the work may take more time than anticipated. Given that the lawyer likely has an understanding of what is required based on past work and given that the lawyer can make up losses on some fixed fee matters by gains on other fixed fee matters, this risk is mitigated. Where fixed fees are fairly agreed, it would be inappropriate for the client to be charged an increased cost because it turned out that extra time was required and it would be inappropriate for the client to demand a rebate because it turned out that less time was required than was anticipated. Either fixed prices are agreed or not.

But all of this assumes an effective market. For lawyers and clients, there is significant information asymmetry. Clients cannot assess whether a particular fixed price makes sense as clients ordinarily cannot assess the cost of the work to be done and likely outcomes. However, where prices are generally available, clients can “shop” based on price. Where prices are transparent and price shopping is possible, clients need not make their own assessments because a competitive market does so for them.

Contingent Fees

Contingent fees have some similarity to fixed prices. The price of the legal work is fixed as a percentage of the ultimate recovery. However, contingent fees add a further complexity as no fee is charged where there is no recovery.

There are two risks facing clients and lawyers, or paralegals, where personal injury and other disputes are to be resolved. There is the risk of non-recovery where liability is in issue. There is uncertainty as to the amount of the net recovery as both the amount of the recovery and the cost of obtaining recovery are uncertain. Because disputes can be settled at any stage (and are usually resolved by settlement rather than judicial decision), the cost of resolving a dispute is much more uncertain than, for example, the cost of completing a residential real estate transaction.

For the lawyer or paralegal, the risk inherent in contingent fees is mitigated by their expertise in assessing the risk inherent in particular matters and by their “portfolio” of cases. The situation of the client is very different. The client has no ability to assess the viability of their own case. The client has no portfolio through which to manage risk.

Portfolios of risks

While perhaps not obvious, investment by portfolio in the financial world offers the same risk management as having a portfolio of cases in the contingent fee world. A simple example shows the main advantage. Imagine a $1,000 bet based on a single coin toss. Heads you win $1,100. Tails you lose. There is a 50% chance of a complete loss. But imagine the same bet made on a portfolio of ten coin tosses. The probability of a complete loss drops to a little less than one in one-thousand and profit becomes very likely.

In the contingent fee context, a single contingent fee case can be very risky. But where work done in the losing cases can be recouped in the winning cases, risk is better managed. To make a very simple example, if there is a portfolio of cases each of which has a 50% chance of success and each of which requires a fixed amount work and disbursements worth $10,000, charging $20,000 for each case that is successful is a very low risk proposition even though the prospect of payment for any particular case is only 50/50.

Contingent fee work is more complicated than betting on coin tosses. The probability of success varies from case to case. The work and disbursements required in any given case is uncertain and difficult to accurately predict. More becomes known as the matter progresses. The outcome of a case is most uncertain at the outset. Assessing the amount of work to be done is also most uncertain at the outset of the matter. For a lawyer or paralegal, a contingent fee case is like a financial investment but with the added complexity that the amount to be invested is uncertain.

Modern portfolio theory says that risk is reduced by having a portfolio of risks. Before this was well understood, it used to be that trustees were only legally permitted to make certain “safe” investments. The idea was that the “prudent investor” would not make risky investments. However, we now know that a portfolio of higher risk investments can be low risk as a whole. The winners pay for the losers. The risk of having all losers is very much reduced by portfolio investment. Indeed, modern portfolio theory shows that a diverse portfolio of higher risk investments is likely to be more profitable than a portfolio of lower risk investments. But the investor must be able to enjoy the fruits of the winning investments for the portfolio to do its magic.

Contingent fees and markets

Injured people typically cannot afford the cost of the legal services required for their case. Borrowing the money to pay the cost of doing the necessary work is risky unless the case is not. Even assuming that recovery is quite likely, there is uncertainty as to the cost of obtaining recovery. Some cases settle quickly at low cost. Some cases go to trial or appeal. Contingent fees move this risk from the client to the lawyer or paralegal who can better assess the risk and reduce the risk by having a portfolio of cases.

But the contingent fee system will not work fairly in the real world unless there is an effective market in which contingent fees are set. Obviously, clients have limited insight into their cases. Otherwise, they would not need legal experts to assist them. Clients have no insight into the portfolio of cases maintained by their lawyers or paralegals. Where there is information asymmetry and a market which is not truly competitive, the party with superior information will have an advantage in setting prices. This either results in higher prices where the party with superior information is the supplier or by diminished demand from consumers or both.

It seems pretty clear that we do not have an effective market for contingent fees. While the problem of information asymmetry can be addressed by active bidding by informed suppliers for work, there is no good evidence of robust bidding being common. The significant growth of brand advertising appears to show that injured people have difficulty knowing who to approach for legal services. There is, at best, limited market information available to consumers or suppliers as to the costs of obtaining recovery. Unlike commodity products such as tomatoes or motor vehicles, assessing the expected value of a particular matter is not easy and requires information and expertise. We cannot directly assess whether the existing market is competitive as we have no information as to the profitability of the portfolios.

Ensuring fair and reasonable contingent fees

So how do we currently address the prospect of unfair and unreasonable contingent fees? The first way is by regulating the agreement entered into at the outset. The Solicitors Act establishes certain requirements and, in some circumstances, allows the parties to agree on a different approach with judicial approval. The second way is by considering, after the work is done, whether the contingent fee agreement and the contingent fee are fair and reasonable. For those who cannot represent themselves, the court must approve the ultimate fee. For others, the supervision of the court may be invoked by the assessment process.

The recent case of Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP v. Zawadzki, 2015 ONCA 756 considered judicial supervision of contingent fees and started with the proposition that “A contingency fee agreement is enforceable only if it is both fair and reasonable”.

The question of fairness and reasonableness could be considered based only on what was known at the outset of a matter. In theory at least, a contingent fee agreement that fairly and reasonably reflects the risk of non-recovery and of uncertainty in the cost of recovery would not need to be the subject of after the fact examination. Otherwise, the cases that are more lucrative for the lawyer or paralegal would not pay for the less lucrative cases and, as a result, lawyers and paralegals would decline to take on the higher risk or higher cost cases.

Nevertheless and as Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP makes clear, fairness is currently addressed after the fact, but as of the date of the contingency fee agreement. and reasonableness is addressed after the fact. For the later reasonableness assessment, the Court of Appeal cited with approval its earlier decision in Henricks-Hunter v. 814888 Ontario Inc. (Phoenix Concert Theatre), 2012 ONCA 496 which set out the following factors to be considered in the test for reasonableness:

(a) the time expended by the solicitor;

(b) the legal complexity of the matter at issue;

(c) the results achieved; and

(d) the risk assumed by the solicitor.

The Court of Appeal in Henricks-Hunter followed Raphael Partners v. Lam (2002), 61 OR (3d) 417 (OCA) which held that:

The factors relevant to an evaluation of the reasonableness of fees charged by a solicitor are well established. They include the time expended by the solicitor, the legal complexity of the matter at issue, the results achieved and the risk assumed by the solicitor. The latter factor includes the risk of non-payment where there is a real risk of an adverse finding on liability in the client’s case.

It is clear that our current approach to contingent fees provides for after-the-fact assessment and does not presume that a competitive market will result in reasonable contingent fees.

Calls for Reform – are caps the answer?

There has been much recent public controversy about contingent fees. There are private members bills calling for a cap on the percentage of recovery that may be charged. There are articles in the media decrying situations where the lawyer recovers more than the client or recovers an unusually high proportion of the recovery. The volume of advertisements on buses, taxis, television, the internet and elsewhere, without reference to price, may suggest that personal injury work is lucrative and worth substantial spending to attract work.

Unfortunately, the prescriptions may not address the disease or its symptoms. Following from the discussion above, where a limit is set on the percentage of the recovery that may be taken as a fee, the logical response may be not to take on riskier cases. Again assuming a competitive market and a diverse portfolio, the higher return winners pay for the higher risk losers. The policy problem is that we simply have no idea of the actual risk of the portfolio as a whole or its elements and we have no basis from which to conclude what percentage is unreasonable representing an uncompetitive market and what limit would fairly protect injured people and what limit would cause some injured people to lose access to justice because their cases will not be taken on. In an uncompetitive market, setting a limit can be tantamount to fixing a tariff as the cap becomes a signal to consumers who have no better information and may foster tacit collusion among firms.

There is another problem as well. For some cases which are vigorously defended, the cost of taking the case to trial is comparable to the amount in issue or even more. For those cases, a lawyer would generally be foolish to take on a case destined for trial if the potential recovery assuming success simply cannot fund the work required. But there are exceptions. A personal injury lawyer needs to be credible with defence counsel and insurers. Showing that cases will be tried if necessary makes settlement of other cases more likely. The threat of trial must be a credible threat to have value.

But it is said that there are areas of practice where the practical effect of limiting the contingent fee to a capped portion of the damages recovery would be that injured people would be denied access to justice. These are areas of practice where the risk and cost of obtaining recovery at trial is not commensurate with the damages award. even though it can be commensurate with the costs award together with a proportion of the damages award. Where there is a significant likelihood that a trial will be required, a lawyer is unlikely to accept a case where there isn’t a prospect of recovery of the lawyer’s risk-adjusted investment.

My point is not to argue in this column that there should or should not be a cap on the percentage fee. My point is that the question is tricky and that a cap may have unintended consequences and may not actually address the genuine issue at hand.

Some further thoughts about reform

As for the current after-the-fact assessment approach, there is value in that approach assuming that it is well done. At least in theory, assessing risk-return is a legitimate check on reasonableness. But there are at least two glaring problems1. The first is that an after-the-fact reasonableness assessment that looks only at the risk/return of the particular case fails to reflect that portfolio risk is less than the risk of any individual case. Absent portfolio information, there is a very real potential that after-the-fact reasonableness assessment is a Potemkin assessment. It looks real but isn’t. On the other hand, after-the-fact reasonableness assessment also fails to reflect the reality that only the “winners” get assessed. Portfolio information addresses this as well.

The second problem is that “successful” plaintiffs can have no idea whether their particular contingent fee is reasonable as they do not have the information that the courts have said is required for that assessment. They do not know the time expended by the solicitor, the legal complexity of the matter at issue, or the risk assumed by the lawyer. All that they know is the result achieved. There is no current obligation to disclose the other requisite information. There is no obligation to recommend an independent opinion or an assessment for cases where these factors suggest unreasonableness. That is not to say that responsible lawyers and paralegals will not take these factors into account in setting their ultimate fees. But a fiduciary cannot be permitted to withhold information that is necessary to hold the fiduciary accountable. The system should empower clients who do not know that they should be unhappy with their fees. It would be better if the system did not cause clients who ought to be happy with their fees to become unhappy. But it is surely unacceptable to hold back relevant information because the information may be misused.

Standing further back, can we make the contingent fee system more transparent and accordingly more competitive with the intent that a fair contingent fee agreement may be more reliably seen to generate a reasonable contingent fee? The answer must surely be yes. But this requires that portfolio information be gathered from lawyers and paralegals and aggregated so that injured people can have a better idea of the contingent pricing offered to them, so that lawyers and paralegals can better compete for work and so that society, through the courts, the government and the Law Society, can genuinely understand the risks and rewards involved in contingent fee work.

It is to be expected that lawyers and paralegals will resist reforms that impose costs on them, limit their returns and create uncertainty as to whether their contracts will be honoured. Cries of “bureaucracy” and “freedom of contract”2 will be heard. But it is necessary that the interests of injured people be kept firmly in mind rather than just the competing voices of advocates and insurers.

But it would be best if creative solutions could be found that maintain access to justice for injured people through contingent fees while better ensuring that substantive justice is obtained – that the amount taken from the compensatory recovery of an injured person is not unreasonable taking into account the risks and costs involved.

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1 Noel Semple kindly reviewed a draft of this column and provided a number of helpful comments and suggestions. Noel raises a third glaring problem which is that risk is often not appreciated after the fact. What was reasonably seen to be risky at the outset may well not seem risky when the results are known. The reverse can be true as well.

2 Despite that our current contingent fee system requires after-the-fact assessment for fairness and reasonableness and the relative vulnerability of clients, some still argue that any reform should be on the basis on caveat emptor.

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