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Q: What’s a contingency fee?

A: A contingency fee means that the attorney delays receiving any compensation unless the attorney is able to obtain a “recovery” for the client, the plaintiff (who prosecutes the lawsuit) from the defendants (those whom the client sues).  A contingency-fee agreement puts all the risk on the attorney. Cases may take several years to resolve. During those years, the attorney finances the case—by investing the attorney’s time and money to prepare the case for trial. The attorney’s time spent working on the case also prevents the attorney from working on other matters, such as hourly matters, where payment is immediate and guaranteed.  If the attorney cannot generate a recovery, then the attorney gets nothing for the lost time, money, and opportunities.

Q: Why are contingency fees good for social justice?

A: Contingency fees are equalizers.  They provide access to the courts for poor folks injured by police misconduct.  The alternative to a contingency-fee agreement–the hourly fee agreement–would require the client to first pay a deposit and then pay each month the attorneys’ hours worked and case costs advanced.  With no upfront or continuing costs, people of any income level may hire an attorney on a contingency-fee basis to go to court to vindicate their civil rights.    

Q: What is “fee shifting” and why is it good for social justice?

A: Certain state and federal statutes provide for “fee shifting,” which means the losing party pays the prevailing party’s attorneys’ fees and costs.  Fee-shifting incentivizes private attorneys to represent people and act as private “attorneys general” to enforce certain public civil-rights laws, such as the United States Constitution’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force.   

Q: In a contingency-fee agreement, what’s the difference between “attorney’s fees” and “case costs”?

A: An attorney’s fee is the amount that the attorney earns for time spent working on the case.  Preparing a case for trial may take 1,000 or more hours of attorney time. If a case settles, the attorney’s fee may, under an attorney-client fee agreement, come out of a portion–such as 33.3%–of the total settlement.  Or, under a “fee-shifting” statute, the attorney’s fee may come the defendants’ pocket, often after the parties have litigated the reasonableness of the winning party’s attorney’s fee, or hourly rate.

Case costs are those expenditures to prepare and develop the evidence needed to win at trial, including payments for: court reporters and videographers at depositions; deposition transcripts; video copies of depositions; postage; overnight delivery; and fees for expert witnesses, private investigators, process servers, and jury consultants.  Case costs–even in “small” cases–often reach into the tens of thousands of dollars well before trial.

Helm Law Office, PC pays for case costs and then deducts these costs first from any recovery.  If the firm has incurred case costs in a matter that does not result in a recovery, then the firm will not seek reimbursement from the client for those costs.  If the case loses at trial, however, the client may be responsible for paying the other side’s “taxable” case costs.  

Q: What’s a medical lien, who is obligated to pay it?

A: A medical lien is essentially a medical bill–an amount of money to pay for the treatment of the client’s injuries resulting from the police misconduct.  Both attorney and client must ensure that medical liens are promptly paid. Medical liens may be held by hospitals, emergency rooms, or, in the case of Medi-Cal recipients, the State of California’s Department of Health Services (DHS).  If the client was under Medi-Cal at the time of treatment, then under California statutory law, the client must reimburse Medi-Cal out of any settlement. This is a “statutory lien.”

Q:What are the attorney’s obligations regarding a client’s Medi-Cal lien?

A: In California, the attorney of a client covered by Medi-Cal must notify DHS upon both the filing the lawsuit and its settlement.  The attorney must then: (1) deduct from the settlement an amount of money to satisfy DHS’ lien and (2) send it to DHS. In addition to fulfilling the duty of handling a client’s medical liens, Helm Law Office, PC will always seek to negotiate the lien so that it takes a smaller part of the client’s recovery.