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The California Supreme Court appeared unlikely Thursday to veer from the rule that clients must sign off on fee-splitting agreements between attorneys. That means a lawyer who worked briefly on a high-profile sexual harassment suit could end up with little of the $1.9 million in fees awarded in the case. Attorney Arne Werchick asked the justices to ignore the absence of client Rena Weeks’ signature and instead consider what his client, Arthur Chambers, was owed for his legal contribution to her successful 1993 suit against Baker & McKenzie. Weeks, a former legal secretary in the firm’s Palo Alto office, won $6.9 million in damages in a 1994 San Francisco Superior Court trial. The trial judge later reduced the award to $3.5 million. About $1.9 million in fees is in dispute. Chambers, a San Francisco solo, was brought into the litigation by lead attorney Philip Kay to help with discovery. Chambers, who also advanced $3,356 in costs and expenses, had a written agreement with Kay to receive 28 percent of the fees if the case went beyond depositions. But Weeks never signed the agreement, as is required by Rule 2-200 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. During discovery, Kay removed Chambers from the case for “failure to consult” and for having a “different approach” to strategy. He then brought in Alan Exelrod of Rudy Exelrod Zieff. Following trial, Kay informed Chambers that their fee agreement was invalid due to Chambers’ “failure to perform legal services,” among other things. Kay instead offered to pay Chambers $200 an hour for his work. Chambers argues he is entitled to about $500,000 in fees and interest. The First District Court of Appeal held the fee agreement invalid under Rule 2-200, but said that Chambers could pursue a quantum meruit action for the reasonable value of his services. On Thursday, the Supreme Court justices sounded skeptical of Chambers’ claims. Justice Joyce Kennard told Werchick, of Truckee’s Werchick & Werchick, that the signature was no trivial matter. “If I were the client, it would be important to me to have that piece of paper with the signature on it,” Kennard said. She said the rule was designed “to protect the client” and eliminate ambiguity and arguments. “It appears agreeing with you would give rise to all kinds of factual disputes,” Kennard added. Justice Marvin Baxter was curious about what exactly Werchick was asking of the court: a greater fee for his client or a rule change. “Do you want us to disregard the rule or to disregard the facts of the rule in this case?” Baxter asked. “I’m asking you to interpret the rule,” the attorney replied. “All that was missing is the signature. � It’s not the client’s money.” Baxter reminded Werchick that rule 2-200 “comes from the profession itself,” which indicates that lawyers through the State Bar had a hand in its drafting and intent. “It seems to me the rule says what it says,” the justice said. Justice Janice Rogers Brown did ask Kay’s attorney, Kirk Jenkins, why the contract between the two lawyers shouldn’t be enforced. Jenkins, a partner at Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold, cited the First District’s decision. Jenkins said it was not up to Kay to seek Weeks’ signature on the agreement, but rather the responsibility of Chambers. “Mr. Chambers had a duty here,” the attorney said. “All he had to do was say, ‘Ms. Weeks � I need your written consent.’” Jenkins also told the court that Chambers was seeking 28 percent of the legal fee, but only performed 3.5 percent of the work on the case. “He’s trying to piggyback on the other attorneys,” Jenkins said. In rebuttal, Werchick argued that “lawyers have to be responsible to each other” and should pay one another for the services they provide. The case is Chambers v Kay, SO98007.

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