Lawyers can be expensive creatures. Most of us, struggling along at a per-hour rate in the double digits, might balk at the triple digit rates we have to pay lawyers. (Of course, lawyers can’t bill every hour, and much of that triple digit number goes to rent, office supplies, secretarial help, etc., but that’s a topic for another day.) Even if we think paying for that knowledge and experience is worth it (and it is, if I do say so myself) sometimes we struggle with the ability to pay.
Which puts lawyers in a weird position. They can sue their clients for what they are owed, but that creates its own set of ethical conundrums. It puts you at odds with someone you are supposed to be on the same side as. It also requires that you disclose certain billing records which may (in some cases) violate attorney-client privilege. It’s an odd place to be – on the one hand, as a lawyer you have contracted to sell your time. You have met your end of the bargain by giving your time, and you haven’t been paid. But you don’t have the same remedies everyone else does to get that money back. (If you took a TV from Wal-Mart without paying for it, you’d be considered a thief. So why aren’t you a thief when you take a lawyer’s time without paying for it? Is there morally a difference?)
The law, then, gives another remedy. Attorney liens give lawyers the right to attach a kind of ownership right to their clients’ property in order to make sure they get paid. It isn’t done that often, but it can be. A lien, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is “a claim, encumbrance, or charge on property for payment of some debt, obligation or duty.” In simple terms, this means that a lien is when you get to say you own (at least partially) someone else’s stuff because they owe you money.
O.C.G.A. 15-19-14 has a number of different provisions in it. The first section says that lawyers have a lien on all of their clients’ papers and money in their possession until the fees are paid, and they may apply that money to the satisfaction of the claim. In English, this means that whatever stuff your lawyer is holding for you can be used to pay the attorney’s fees. It also means that if, for example, you gave your tax returns to your lawyer because you needed to for your divorce, and then you need them later to apply for a loan, the lawyer doesn’t have to give them back to you until you’ve paid the bill.
There are exceptions to this, according to the Courts. If you fire your lawyer halfway through a lawsuit, for example, and your lawyer is in possession of critical evidence to the defense (or prosecution) of your case, your lawyer can’t hold on to it. This is one of those situations where the ethics rules for the State Bar are a little more strict than the law requires them to be.
The second provision of O.C.G.A. 15-19-14 says that if you get a money judgment as a result of your case, the attorney can but a lien on that money, and the attorney’s claim to that money for attorney’s fees is greater than everyone else’s claim to that money, except for tax liens. It also means that if you get a judgment for, say $20,000.00 and you owe your attorney $5,000.00, and the person who owes you the money from the case won’t pay, your lawyer has the same rights to enforce the judgment that you do. This is helpful – it puts you both on the same side for actually recovering what a court says you are owed. (This is a big deal, and yet another topic for another day – if I could actually collect all the money for my clients that a court has awarded, I would be a wealthy woman, and so would be many of my clients.)
The third provision of O.C.G.A. 15-19-14 says that if your case involves the recovery of real property, your lawyer has a claim to the real property you recovered to the tune of whatever you owe. Again, these claims are superior to all claims except tax liens – if I read the statute correctly, it means the lawyer’s lien would be satisfied even before the mortgage would be in the event of foreclosure.
There are rules about timing and methodology, and there is case law that limits this right. Lawyers can’t, ultimately, do anything that would prejudice their clients’ legal rights. Still, like everyone else who performs a service, lawyers have the right to be paid what you agreed to pay them. This law just gives them a method to collect.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is offered for informational purposes only. No lawyer can advise you about your particular case without hearing the unique details of your situation.