Professional Guidelines

An agency of the Supreme Court of Virginia

The Virginia State Bar

Professional Guidelines

Rule 1.5


  • (a) A lawyer's fee shall be reasonable. The factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of a fee include the following:
    • (1) the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;
    • (2) the likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer;
    • (3) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services;
    • (4) the amount involved and the results obtained;
    • (5) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances;
    • (6) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client;
    • (7) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and
    • (8) whether the fee is fixed or contingent.
  • (b) The lawyer's fee shall be adequately explained to the client. When the lawyer has not regularly represented the client, the amount, basis or rate of the fee shall be communicated to the client, preferably in writing, before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.
  • (c) A fee may be contingent on the outcome of the matter for which the service is rendered, except in a matter in which a contingent fee is prohibited by paragraph (d) or other law. A contingent fee agreement shall state in writing the method by which the fee is to be determined, including the percentage or percentages that shall accrue to the lawyer in the event of settlement, trial or appeal, litigation and other expenses to be deducted from the recovery, and whether such expenses are to be deducted before or after the contingent fee is calculated. Upon conclusion of a contingent fee matter, the lawyer shall provide the client with a written statement stating the outcome of the matter and, if there is a recovery, showing the remittance to the client and the method of its determination.
  • (d) A lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge, or collect a contingent fee:
    • (1) in a domestic relations matter, except in rare instances; or
    • (2) for representing a defendant in a criminal case.
  • (e) A division of a fee between lawyers who are not in the same firm may be made only if:
    • (1) the client is advised of and consents to the participation of all the lawyers involved;
    • (2) the terms of the division of the fee are disclosed to the client and the client consents thereto;
    • (3) the total fee is reasonable; and
    • (4) the division of fees and the client's consent is obtained in advance of the rendering of legal services, preferably in writing.
  • (f) Paragraph (e) does not prohibit or regulate the division of fees between attorneys who were previously associated in a law firm or between any successive attorneys in the same matter. In any such instance, the total fee must be reasonable.


Basis or Rate of Fee

[1] ABA Model Rule Comment not adopted.

[2] When the lawyer has regularly represented a client, they ordinarily will have evolved an understanding concerning the basis or rate of the fee. In a new client-lawyer relationship, however, an understanding as to the amount, basis, or rate of the fee should be promptly established. It is not necessary to recite all the factors that underlie the basis of the fee, but only those that are directly involved in its computation. It is sufficient, for example, to state that the basic rate is an hourly charge or a fixed amount or an estimated amount, or to identify the factors that may be taken into account in finally fixing the fee. A written statement concerning the fee reduces the possibility of misunderstanding. Furnishing the client with a simple letter, memorandum, receipt or a copy of the lawyer's customary fee schedule may be sufficient if the basis or rate of the fee is set forth.

[3] ABA Model Rule Comment not adopted.

Terms of Payment

[4] A lawyer may require advance payment of a fee, but is obliged to return any unearned portion. See Rule 1.16(d). A lawyer may accept property in payment for services, such as an ownership interest in an enterprise, providing this does not involve acquisition of a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of the litigation contrary to Rule 1.8(j). However, a fee paid in property instead of money may be subject to special scrutiny because it involves questions concerning both the value of the services and the lawyer's special knowledge of the value of the property.

[5] An agreement may not be made whose terms might induce the lawyer improperly to curtail services for the client or perform them in a way contrary to the client's interest. For example, a lawyer should not enter into an agreement whereby services are to be provided only up to a stated amount when it is foreseeable that more extensive services probably will be required, unless the situation is adequately explained to the client. Otherwise, the client might have to bargain for further assistance in the midst of a proceeding or transaction. However, it is proper to define the extent of services in light of the client's ability to pay. A lawyer should not exploit a fee arrangement based primarily on hourly charges by using wasteful procedures. When considering whether a contingent fee is consistent with the client's best interest, the lawyer should offer the client alternative bases for the fee and explain their implications. Applicable law may impose limitations on contingent fees, such as a ceiling on the percentage. In any event, a fee should not be imposed upon a client, but should be the result of an informed decision concerning reasonable alternatives.

Contingent Fees in Domestic Relations Cases

[6] An arrangement for a contingent fee in a domestic relations matter has been previously considered appropriate only in those rare instances where:

  • (a) the contingent fee is for the collection of, and is to be paid out of (i) accumulated arrearages in child or spousal support; (ii) an asset not previously viewed or contemplated as a marital asset by the parties or the court; (iii) a monetary award pursuant to equitable distribution or under a property settlement agreement;
  • (b) the parties are divorced and reconciliation is not a realistic prospect;
  • (c) the children of the marriage are or will soon achieve the age of maturity and the legal services rendered pursuant to the contingent fee arrangement are not likely to affect their relationship with the non-custodial parent;
  • (d) the client is indigent or could not otherwise obtain adequate counsel on an hourly fee basis; and
  • (e) the fee arrangement is fair and reasonable under the circumstances.

Division of Fee

[7] A division of fee refers to a single billing to a client covering the fee of two or more lawyers who are not in the same firm. A division of fee facilitates association of more than one lawyer in a matter in which neither alone could serve the client as well, and most often is used when the fee is contingent and the division is between a referring lawyer and a trial specialist.

[8] ABA Model Rule Comment not adopted.

Disputes over Fees

[9] If a procedure has been established for resolution of fee disputes, such as an arbitration or mediation procedure established by the bar, the lawyer should conscientiously consider submitting to it. Law may prescribe a procedure for determining a lawyer's fee, for example, in representation of an executor or administrator, a class or a person entitled to a reasonable fee as part of the measure of damages. The lawyer entitled to such a fee and a lawyer representing another party concerned with the fee should comply with the prescribed procedure.

Virginia Code Comparison

With regard to paragraph (a), DR 2-105(A) required that a "lawyer's fees . . . be reasonable and adequately explained to the client." The factors involved in assessing the reasonableness of a fee listed in Rule 1.5(a) are substantially similar to those listed in EC 2-20.

Paragraph (b) emphasizes the lawyer's duty to adequately explain fees (which appears in DR 2-105(A)) but stresses the lawyer's duty to disclose fee information to the client rather than merely responding to a client's request for information (as in DR 2-105(B)).

Paragraph (c) is substantially the same as DR 2-105(C). EC 2-22 provided that "[c]ontingent fee arrangements in civil cases have long been commonly accepted in the United States," but that "a lawyer generally should decline to accept employment on a contingent fee basis by one who is able to pay a reasonable fixed fee...."

With regard to paragraph (d), DR 2-105(C) prohibited a contingent fee in a criminal case. EC 2-22 provided that "contingent fee arrangements in domestic relation cases are rarely justified."

With regard to paragraph (e), DR 2-105(D) permitted division of fees only if: "(1) The client consents to employment of additional counsel; (2) Both attorneys expressly assume responsibility to the client; and (3) The terms of the division of the fee are disclosed to the client and the client consents thereto."

There was no counterpart to paragraph (f) in the Virginia Code.

Committee Commentary

The Committee believes that DR 2-105 placed greater emphasis than the ABA Model Rule on the Full Disclosure of Fees and Fee Arrangements to Clients and therefore added language from DR 2-105(A) to paragraph (a) and from DR 2-105(D)(3) to paragraph (e). The Comment to paragraph (d)(1) reflects the Committee's conclusion that the public policy concerns which preclude contingent fee arrangements in certain domestic relations cases do not apply when property division, support matters or attorney's fee awards have been previously determined. Paragraph (e) eliminates the requirement in the Virginia Code that each lawyer involved in a fee-splitting arrangement assume full responsibility to the client, regardless of the degree of the lawyer's continuing participation. The requirement in the Virginia Code was deleted to encourage referrals under appropriate circumstances by not requiring the lawyer making the referral to automatically assume ethical responsibility for all of the activities of the other lawyers involved in the arrangement. However, such an arrangement is acceptable only if the client consents after full disclosure, which must include a delineation of each lawyer's responsibilities to the client.

The amendments effective January 1, 2004, added paragraph (f).

Updated: October 30, 2009