Disqualification Would Not Have Happened If Just Amount Of Fees At Dispute.
Although this is a case from outside of California, we post on it to show potential disqualification issues which might arise when a firm representing itself in a fee dispute must prove more than just the reasonableness of fees being requested.
What happened in Harris & Hilton, P.A. v. Rassette, 798 S.W.2d 154 (N.C. Ct. App. 2017) is that a small law firm was representing itself in a fee dispute. The problem was that some of the firm attorneys were witnesses on one of the key issues as to whether there was an existence of a fee contract. Although ABA Model Rule 3.7 allows an attorney to be both an advocate and witness on an uncontested issue or nature/value of legal services (or unless the firm could show a substantial hardship), the trial judge disqualified the firm from representing itself given that the firm attorneys were witnesses on the issue of whether a contract existed—a determination affirmed on appeal, given the appellate court did not believe it could rewrite Rule 3.7. The rationale for the rule is that it may cause confusion to a jury when a firm attorney is both advocate and witness in a case.
BLOG OBSERVATION—Although ABA Model Rules are not binding, we would assume the same result might well come to pass in California in a jury trial setting. Nonetheless, unless the collecting law firm wants to waive fees expended in collecting on the matter (which does sometime occur), another reason that this issue may not arise in California that frequently is that firm seeking to collect fees hire outside counsel so as to avoid the inability to recoup fees under Trope v. Katz decision [our Leading Case No. 12] should a firm decide to represent itself in a fee dispute.