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The Curious Case of Conditional Legal Fees

A conditional legal fee agreement can be simply understood as an agreement with a legal practitioner or representative of a case, wherein the fees stipulated by way of agreement, or even the legal expenses, or a combination of both, shall be paid, contingent to certain specific circumstances that delineate the outcome of the case, which is in general parlance the circumstance where the client wins the case, or materially has a positive outcome, which is to be satisfaction of the client.

Defining Conditional Legal Fees

A conditional legal fee agreement can be defined as an agreement wherein a client & a lawyer stipulate a financial arrangement under which either part or even whole of the lawyer’s remuneration will be paid by the client in question only or on the event of a positive or successful outcome. While in several International Jurisdictions, in case of a successful outcome of a case, a ‘success fee’ is payable by the client to the practitioner in addition to the generally agreed remuneration, in the Indian context, it is often observed that the basic entitlement of a practitioner, i.e. the legal fees only, is the payment in case of a successful outcome. 

The Conundrum of Conditionality of Fees

The general stipulations concerning a conditional legal fee agreement are such that in cases of a successful outcome of a case, the legal fee is dispensed in full, and in case of ‘failure’ to obtain the desired result, the client shall be entitled to pay a reduced fee, or in certain cases, an abysmally low amount, or no fees whatsoever. Such agreements are often mentioned or termed as ‘no win no fee’ agreements in Western jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom. 

The underlying reason why various clients prefer to enter into such agreements is often over a unfounded apprehension that while the lawyer may charge in full, they may not correctly analyze the exigencies involved in the case, and thereby contribute in materially affecting the outcome of the case, in a negative manner. Whereas, based on the perspective of the lawyer, in cases where there is an element of ‘winnability’, lawyers agree to such agreement based on an assumption for a positive legal outcome, and thereby remuneration for their services and time.

When a conditional fee agreement is entered between the client and the lawyer, the client usually is absolved of the liability to pay the lawyer any fee upfront. In such cases, the lawyers generally go to greater lengths to try to represent in such a manner that chances of a positive outcome for the client are exponentially increased. The reasoning for such an effect is because on case of failure to achieve the desired result, the lawyer stands a chance of losing the payment meant for all the time & efforts undertaken for the case.

There are various upsides and disadvantages that come as a part-and-parcel whilst entering a conditional fee agreement. By way of giving organizations and clients more financial choices to pursue justifiable claims that they might not otherwise explore, conditional fee agreement improve access to justice, for the client. Conditional fee agreement may also aid in discouraging lawyers from pursuing weak cases and spurious claims because fees under one are outcome-based. 

Concerns about conditional fee agreement causing conflicts of interest have been voiced by several critics. To prevent the possibility of losing the lawsuit and the associated fees, a lawyer, for instance, can pressure a client to accept a low settlement offer. Additionally, they might promote the pursuit of weak nuisance claims against companies with large assets and might lead to ancillary legal disputes about the recoverability of success fees. On the other hand, the client can exploit the lawyer’s services for maximizing the output for themselves, failing which the lawyer would not be fairly remunerated for their services.

Moreover, the success fee’s higher cost (in international jurisdictions) may in some cases discourage utilization of conditional fee agreements.  Lawyers will only agree to operate in accordance with a  conditional fee agreement where there are strong chances of victory. As a result, before deciding to act in accordance with a conditional fee agreement, the lawyer in question will need to weigh in the advantages and disadvantages of a case, and do a cost-benefit analysis before taking up the case.

Ethical Concerns

For lawyers who are already in the field, it is an impediment to their morale and self-respect as a professional, when clients make demands for conditional payments. It erodes the confidence and self-belief of any legal professional and puts the client on a pedestal, as the client has a higher bargaining power. Demands for instituting conditional fee agreements, or any such arrangement is not merely unfair but further dampens the professional and ethical standards of the legal profession in general.

Demanding to pay for legal services only after a specific outcome is achieved puts an inordinate amount of unnecessary pressure on the lawyer or legal representative, and also ferments an unhealthy and unpleasant professional relationship between the lawyer and the client. It significantly abates the trust as well as confidence reposed between the parties, a crucial factor for engaging in a successful legal representation.

Additionally, stipulating a financial arrangement under which either part or even whole of the lawyer’s fees is paid gives the client a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the practitioner, which the client can use to avail more services of the lawyer than what was initially agreed under the garb of future payment. Into the bargain, the client may fully avail the lawyer’s services and then refuse to pay if they are subjectively dissatisfied with the outcome, which is beyond the control of the lawyer, leaving the lawyer uncompensated for their work.


It is imperative to comprehend the fact that lawyers charge remuneration for their time, legal expertise, and efforts, which encompasses various services such as drafting, representation, seeking various remedies of the court, etc. The outcome of any case is not within the lawyer’s control, as the judge is the ultimate decider, and thereof, it is unfair to blame the lawyer for the outcome of the case. 


Lawyers aim to ensure the best possible outcome for the client, regardless of the facts and circumstances that the client’s case pose to a lawyer. Further, the outcome of a case differs based on various aspects, and there is no straitjacket outcome for a category of cases. A client must be sensitive to the various needs a legal representative serves whilst representing the client.

In conclusion, it is essential to take into book the fact that legal fees must not be conditional on the outcome of the case, and clients must not bargain to make a payment to their lawyer pertaining to the case, only after a specific outcome is achieved.

A probable solution to such cases, is to establish a fair, reasonable, and transparent fee arrangement between the parties upfront, at the outset of the beginning of the case, based on the amount of the lawyer’s time, efforts and services that will be put in, in order to ensure a harmonious professional relationship between the client and the lawyer. Only then shall both parties be able to synergize and strategize together to ensure the best outcome that will serve the interests of the client, which will pave the way for long-rung cooperation and effective communication.  

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