The Extraordinary Benefits of Becoming a LACBA Fee Arbitrator

By Christopher D. Cantore

 

How many times have you heard stories like this? Someone complains to you that her attorney took her money, made big promises, then did nothing while leaving her in a worse position. And the only recourse she thinks she has is to complain about the experience or engage in litigation with the former attorney to get her fees back.

As an arbitrator in your local bar association’s mandatory fee arbitration program, you may be able to do something about situations like this. As volunteer arbitrator, you are assigned to a case, contact the parties to arrange a hearing date, conduct the hearing, then issue a Statement of Award in which you decide the appropriate fees. This may result in the client getting a refund, relief from an outstanding bill, or another outcome that you – now in possession of all relevant facts – have determined is the right one.

Mandatory fee arbitrations are authorized by state law as part of a policy that is designed to give clients some redress when they feel they have been wronged or taken advantage of by an attorney. It provides, potentially, a cost-effective method for solving these issues. It also helps to solve perceptions, often untrue, that attorneys are not trustworthy and take advantage of people. When, as an arbitrator, you find a truly egregious case in which the attorney has absconded with the client’s funds or engaged in some other shocking behavior, you can effectively provide the client with justice.

Often, when you hear the case, however, you find out the attorney did a surprising amount of work, more work than the client credited the attorney with, and that the client just misunderstood the situation. Perhaps the client is actually trying to get their money back because of an unfavorable result, not necessarily the fault of the attorney. In these instances, you can also tailor your Award accordingly.

For most arbitrations, it turns out that there is a combination of both overcharges that you uncover by the attorney, as well as a demand by the client for the kind of refund that would mean the attorney worked for free. Through your ability to persuade and make legal argument in the Award, often with reference to caselaw, statutes and arbitration advisories, you have the ability to make those disputes right.

Being a volunteer mandatory fee arbitrator has consumer protection elements and provides a tremendous service to the community. It also gives arbitrators a great opportunity to grow. If you've been to court before a judge, you might wonder what it is like to sit in judgment, or why a judge ruled in a certain way. You might even believe that some judges just don't like you or your client. Serving as an arbitrator gives you a window into that world. The best arbitrators, like some of the best judges, can make the litigants before them feel as though they were heard and respected. Similarly, the mandatory fee arbitration gives parties their day in court. As an arbitrator, you may find it challenging to develop the skills required. The parties all expect to be heard, they all expect or hope that even if you do not find in their favor that you will give them a fair and impartial hearing.They expect that you have reviewed the Petition, Response and any Arbitration Briefs provided before the arbitration. You will need patience, willingness to listen and an ability to keep the proceedings civil and professional.

In addition, running an arbitration requires other skills which you may have or may need to develop. While there is no requirement that you strictly adhere to the Evidence Code, an understanding of evidentiary rules is helpful. You will also oversee witness examinations, rule on objections and admissibility of exhibits, and determine the order of proceedings at the hearing. In more complex cases sometimes involving large sums, you may even be part of a three-person panel which can include discovery issues, pre-hearing conferences, jurisdictional determinations or other decisions to facilitate the proceedings.

Once you have developed these skills it will help you as an attorney to understand not only the judge’s perspective but also that of the other side in legal cases. These are valuable skills required to be a judge, arbitrator or mediator at any level. Arbitrators also become proficient at spotting and avoiding the common pitfalls of legal practice, as many fee disputes result from breakdowns of communication between the attorney and client, unreturned phone calls, poorly crafted fee agreements, or unrealistic expectations that the attorney contributed to. In short, being an arbitrator can help you be a better attorney.

For young attorneys, and even non-attorneys, this provides an opportunity that you might not otherwise have to sit in judgment. For the most part in California, attorneys cannot become judges or commissioners before they have been practicing for 10 years. To be an arbitrator for the Los Angeles County Bar Attorney-Client Mediation and Arbitration Services (ACMAS) the requirement is 5 years plus be in good standing with the bar. So even young attorneys can be arbitrators. You may be required to attend a class or orientation, you will also be expected to familiarize yourself with the ACMAS Rules, various Arbitration Advisories and to write cogent Awards. In many programs, including ACMAS, you can do as little as one or two arbitrations per year, so the time commitment can be tailored to your availability.

Even non-attorneys can participate as laypersons on three-person panels for larger fee disputes. Non-attorneys are a vital part of the process, ensuring panels have representation of citizens from the community and not just attorneys.

While most of the arbitrations are unpaid, many bar associations allow the arbitrator or panel to collect an hourly fee for hearings after a certain threshold of hours or days. See your bar association’s MFA rules for details.

Being an arbitrator is incredibly rewarding and provides great opportunity to grow as an attorney, as well as a chance to experience what it is like to sit in judgment and perform an important service for the community. As an attorney you already have an enormous array of skills that likely sit unused because your chosen field does not require them. This is your chance to hone some of those skills – and develop new ones – that will expand your horizons.

To become an arbitrator for Los Angeles Bar Association ACMAS, call (213) 896-6426, or email acmas@lacba.org

Also, if you have some experience as an arbitrator and are interested in being a part of the ACMAS Advisory Committee, contact ACMAS by calling (213) 896-6426, or by email: acmas@lacba.org.

 


Contact ACMAS: (213) 896-6541, lacba.org/ACMAS.