A Guide to the Legal Fee Arbitration Board
The Massachusetts Bar Association Legal Fee Arbitration Board (FAB) exists primarily to help resolve legal fee disputes between attorneys and between attorneys and their clients. The FAB provides an alternative to litigation in the Small Claims, District, or Superior Courts through voluntary binding arbitration and/or mediation.
This confidential process has only one objective: to decide what is the fair and reasonable value of the attorney's legal services. The FAB cannot and will not make rulings about the behavior or ethics of the attorney.
The FAB also serves as a resource for both attorneys and clients by providing answers questions regarding legal fees and publishing model fee agreements.
What is binding fee arbitration?
Arbitration is less formal than court, though you and the other party may appear at an arbitration hearing, present evidence, or call and question each other’s witnesses. An arbitrator or panel makes a decision or award once you’ve presented your case. The decision is legally binding.
In order to begin the process, either party to a legal fee dispute may file a "Petition for Arbitration." The Agreement to Arbitrate only addresses the issue of what is a fair and reasonable fee. Once received, the Fee Arbitration Board (FAB) will seek the agreement of the other party to participate. The FAB does not have the authority to compel anyone, attorney or client, to submit their case to the FAB, nor are the arbitrators empowered to make any rulings on the behavior or ethics of the attorney.
Once these forms have been filed with the FAB, including full payment of the appropriate filing fee, the parties are legally required to arbitrate the dispute and to accept the decision of the arbitrator(s).
What is mediation?
In mediation, a neutral third party, a mediator, helps you and the other party try to resolve your fee dispute through facilitated dialogue. The parties determine whether they reach an agreement, and control the terms of the agreement. If the parties cannot settle the dispute, it will be scheduled for an arbitration hearing.
Who are the panel of neutrals and what do they do?
Arbitrators and mediators are either volunteer attorneys who are members of the Massachusetts Bar Association or trained non-attorney neutral volunteers. Neutrals foster open and full discussions at all hearings. They hear testimony and take evidence, including the actual fee charged by the attorney, and the client's opinion of what is a fair fee. However, the final decision may not agree with either party's figure. The arbitrators have the right to award a fee that is either higher, the same as or lower than the attorney's actual bill. It is important to note that the only issue that will be considered by the arbitrators at the hearing is the fair and reasonable value of the lawyer's services.
What will happen at an arbitration hearing?
The client and the attorney will meet the arbitrators and will be sworn in at the opening of the hearing. The hearing is held in a conference room of the Boston or Springfield office of the Massachusetts Bar Association. The client and the attorney will sit at separate tables accompanied by any witnesses in attendance. Generally, the petitioner will have the first opportunity to tell his or her side of the dispute. The respondent will then be allowed to ask questions. Next, the respondent will have the opportunity to present his or her side of the dispute, and the petitioner will be allowed to ask questions.
Note: The arbitrators will only listen to evidence that is directly related to the fee dispute.
Should I be represented by an attorney at the hearing?
You do not have to be represented by an attorney at the hearing. You are strongly urged to have an attorney present at the hearing if you have any doubts about your own ability to represent yourself. If you choose to represent yourself at the hearing, it may be advisable for you to consult an attorney earlier in the arbitration process if you have any doubts about your own ability to represent yourself at any point in the proceedings.
If you have any questions about the Massachusetts Bar Association's Legal Fee Arbitration Board process, or if you need further information, please call (617) 338-0646, or email Fee Arbitration Board.