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Written by Posted On Friday, 11 August 2017 19:05

If you’re planning to call an attorney – perhaps a Los Angeles Real Estate Attorney, and if you’re wondering whether the attorney will agree to handle your case, transaction, or dispute, here’s what you should know:

 PRO BONO” Taking a case “Pro Bono” means that the attorney handles everything involved, as they normally would – if you hired them, and agreed to pay them – from start to finish, but without being paid or compensated in any way.  Generally, “Pro Bono” cases are taken on by large law firms, as a benefit to the community, or specifically to a needy individual.  Such legal representation is undertaken either because it is the right thing to do, or for a public relations advantage, or for a combination of both reasons.

If your case involves a dispute as to possession of a residential apartment or house, as in the case of an Eviction, Landlord-Tenant issue, or Wrongful Foreclosure, you may be able to seek the assistance of a Public Interest Law Firm specializing in assisting Tenants who are being evicted.  Public Interest Law Firms representing Tenants seek the publicity that comes with high-profile cases, which may work to your advantage.  If it is “Pro Bono,” then your Real Estate attorney’s interests and your interests will coincide.  But in some cases, where it’s not truly “Pro Bono,” your attorney will want to obtain a money settlement, while you want primarily to remain in your dwelling, perhaps on a rent-free basis for a period of time.

But a “Pro Bono” case is almost never a case where a Real Estate attorney helps their next-door neighbor with an effort to get the City or County to repair a cracked sidewalk, or to trim a tree.  More likely, it will be to defend an accused murderer on “Death Row” in Alabama, for example … where the stakes are very, very high – life and death, for example – and the likelihood of major publicity is also very, very high.   

If a Real Estate attorney undertakes a case, whether with a retainer agreement providing for pay or compensation of some sort, on the one hand, or on the other hand, a retainer agreement providing for no compensation of any sort (“Pro Bono”), the attorney is nevertheless required to see the case through to completion, or – with the client’s permission – substitute in another attorney, or get Court permission to withdraw.  So it’s a serious undertaking for the attorney, even if it’s “Pro Bono.”


Asking an attorney for Free Advice creates problems for the attorney.  First of all, legal issues are complicated, and the attorney really cannot just “blurt” out an answer to your legal question … they must discuss it at length with you, and explain their answer carefully, touching on all of the “caveats” and “footnotes.”  Time and expertise is all that attorneys have to offer, and if they don’t charge for that, what can they charge for?  Second, once they have given you their legal advice, and if their advice happened to be wrong, or incorrect in any way, the attorney is liable for malpractice, whether or not you paid for the advice.  So, attorneys are understandably reluctant to toss out legal advice, without a formal written agreement with you (“Retainer Agreement”), which sets forth clearly the rights and responsibilities of both client and attorney … it is, after all, a two-way street.


Hiring an attorney on an “hourly” basis means that they will keep track of their time working on your case, and bill you for it, hour by hour.  There are (at least) three major problems with this method. 

First of all, most legal work takes much longer than you might imagine.  For example, in a Landlord-Tenant “Habitability” case, talking with you, to gather the facts of your mold, mice and/or mildew takes time, and then reviewing your Lease, and preparing a carefully-worded Demand Letter to send to your Landlord, can (actually) take two (2) hours. 

As another example, for your attorney to go to a Hearing in Court Downtown, can take an hour driving and parking, plus an hour waiting in Court for your case to be called, plus fifteen or twenty minutes for the actual Hearing itself, plus another hour driving back to the attorney’s office … which adds up to three and a half (3.5) hours, which is a lot of time. 

Second, your attorney will be billing you at what seems like a very high hourly rate, usually between $200 and $500 per hour.  This is not as outrageous as you may think, since that is your attorney’s only source of cash flow, from which they must pay their assistant, their landlord (office rent), their phone bill, and all of the services that a law office requires. 

And third, to make matters even worse, it also takes the attorney time to keep time records … and you will pay for that time as well.  Such simple tasks as speaking with you on the phone, answering your e-mails, etc., do take time, and you will be billed for them.



If you need a Real Estate attorney to assist you with a Real Estate Transaction, whether it is the purchase of a home, or the re-financing of a mortgage, it may well be possible to work out a Flat-Fee Retainer Agreement, in which the Real Estate attorney agrees to review a certain Transaction, or a certain set of Documents, and to make any changes or revisions that are necessary in order to protect your interests.  This would be termed a “Flat Fee” Retainer, which may well be exactly what you need.

By law in California, every Real Estate sales contract automatically gives the buyer a THREE (3) DAY Grace Period, in which to rethink the decision, and cancel the deal if the buyer wishes to.  That Grace Period is there for a reason … it is necessary to protect the buyer from making a rash decision.  You would be well-advised to take advantage of the Grace Period, and make a “Flat Fee” arrangement for a Real Estate attorney to review your documents and transaction.

In a Real Estate Transaction, a “Flat Fee” Retainer agreement can solve some of these problems, and provide an extremely useful second opinion on key issues.  For example, do the agreements that you are signing provide for Mediation in case of a dispute, or do they provide for Binding Arbitration?  It makes a big difference.  If the agreements provide for Binding Arbitration, what County is designated as the venue?  Is it Los
Angeles County, Orange County, San Bernardino, or Ventura County?  If you don’t read the fine print, you may find yourself at an extreme disadvantage, at a very stressful time.



Hiring your attorney on “Contingency” means that you do not have to pay your attorney for their time on an hourly basis, but instead, you will share your ultimate recovery – if any – with your attorney.  But the primary problem with retaining an attorney on a “Contingency” basis is that there must be a reasonable likelihood of a substantial monetary recovery.

A reasonable likelihood of a recovery generally means that you (a) have a good, solid case, (b) have suffered real injuries and damages, that (c) were proximately and directly caused by actions or omissions by the defendant.

A substantial monetary recovery generally means that either the defendant has substantial financial assets, and/or substantial insurance coverage.  If – on your behalf – your Real Estate attorney sues your landlord on a “Habitability” claim, you may recover a substantial amount of money, which you will share with your Real Estate attorney.  If, on the other hand, you recover a rent abatement, allowing you to pay less rent in the future, that is not likely to provide your Real Estate / Landlord-Tenant attorney with significant income.  If your landlord agrees to have an exterminator spray around your apartment once a month in the future, or to hire a gardener to better maintain the grounds, this is not likely to provide your attorney with significant income.  Accordingly, a successful Real Estate / Landlord-Tenant attorney will be unlikely to accept such cases on “Contingency.”

If your neighbor trims his tree, and a branch falls and damages your parked car, but the neighbor has no assets and no insurance, it is not likely that an attorney will be able to obtain a substantial monetary recovery on your behalf.

Please also note that even though you have signed a Retainer Agreement specifying a “Contingency” arrangement, the Retainer Agreement will still require you to pay for costs and expenses, with can be substantial.  Such costs and expenses will likely include a $435 Court Filing Fee for your Summons and Civil Complaint, from $1,000 to $2,000, each time, for a Court Reporter to handle the Deposition of Defendant and/or witnesses, and from $3,000 to $10,000 for an Expert to sit for a Deposition and to testify at Trial.  Want that Trial to be a Jury Trial?  In that case, you had better figure the Jury Fees will run $250 to $350 per day of Jury Trial.

Worse yet, you could lose at Trial, in which case, you would get nothing, could find yourself evicted from your dwelling, and even possibly be held liable for defendant’s legal costs.

In a recent California case, a maintenance employee sued his employer for using Asbestos-insulated piping, which had been shown to be harmful to people.  But in this particular case, the employee’s illness stemmed not from his work on the job as a maintenance employee, but from the fact that he used discarded Asbestos-insulated piping, further altered, as edging for his flower beds and vegetable patch, over a period of many years.  When plaintiff sawed and altered the piping, Asbestos was release to the air, and he breathed it.  To make a long story short, the maintenance employee plaintiff lost the case, and had to pay the employer’s legal costs!


In conclusion, you may very well have been inconvenience, hindered, annoyed, harmed, or damaged in some way, but that does NOT mean that an attorney will – or should – agree to take your case.  If you’re having a dispute with your landlord, is it worth paying a Landlord-Tenant or Real Estate attorney on an hourly basis, knowing that your Real Estate attorney may end up spending five (5) hours writing letters and making telephone calls, which will be billed to you at the discounted rate of $200/hour?  This will be $1,000, which your attorney will likely expect to be paid up-front in a retainer.  And, similarly, do you really think your attorney should take such a case on “Contingency,” even though the final result may well be that your landlord agrees to shampoo your carpet, or paint your apartment, or give you a rent reduction?  It is important to view any dispute not just from your perspective, but from your prospective attorney’s perspective, and finally, from your perspective as a paying Client!


Los Angeles Real Estate Lawyer

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