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Arthur Chambers is out a half-million dollars in attorneys fees — and it’s all for the lack of a signature. On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled that the San Francisco solo practitioner could not collect about $500,000 in fees for a high-profile sexual harassment case because he had failed to get the client’s written consent for a fee-splitting agreement with attorney Philip Kay. That, the justices ruled unanimously, violated California Rule of Professional Conduct 2-200, which expressly requires written consent for fee splitting between independent lawyers. “Were we to hold that the fee … may be divided as Chambers and Kay agreed, with no indication that the required client consent was either sought or given,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the court, “we would, in effect, be both countenancing and contributing to a violation of a rule we formally approved in order ‘to protect the public and to promote respect and confidence in the legal profession.’” Chambers v. Kay, 02 C.D.O.S. 10913, arose out of Chambers and Kay’s representation of Rena Weeks, a former legal secretary in the Palo Alto office of Chicago’s Baker & McKenzie who sued the giant firm for sexual harassment. In 1994, a San Francisco jury awarded Weeks $6.9 million, a figure later reduced by a judge to $3.5 million. Kay, also a San Francisco solo, had brought Chambers into the case to maintain files, conduct discovery, confer with Weeks and appear as co-counsel on her behalf at pretrial hearings. Chambers, who advanced $3,356 in costs and expenses, had an agreement with Kay to receive 28 percent of the fees if the case went beyond deposition. But Weeks never signed the agreement, as required by the state’s codes of professional conduct. Kay eventually removed Chambers from the case and brought in Alan Exelrod, a partner at Rudy, Exelrod Zieff. After trial and the big damage award, Kay informed Chambers he was abrogating the fee agreement and instead offered to pay Chambers $200 an hour for the work he had done. Chambers sued, seeking what he considered his fair share of the $1.9 million in fees generated by the case. Monday’s Supreme Court ruling affirms the First District Court of Appeal, which had declared the fee-splitting agreement invalid, but allowed Chambers to pursue a quantum meruit action for the reasonable value of his services. The high court also rejected Chambers’ claim that he was essentially involved in a joint venture partnership with Kay that allowed him to exploit Rule 2-200′s fee-splitting exemption for partners and associates. “The language and history of Rule 2-200 make evident that its requirements have always applied to fee divisions where work on the client’s behalf is divided among attorneys from separate law firms or law offices,” Justice Baxter wrote. “But were we to imply a joint venturer exemption, we essentially would stretch the rule’s exemptions ‘so as to cover situations which were not contemplated by the rule’ … with the effect that the rule’s exemptions would appear to swallow the rule itself.” Neither Chambers nor his lawyer, Arne Werchick, a partner in Truckee’s Werchick & Werchick, could be reached for comment Monday. Kay, meanwhile, said he was glad that the case was “almost over.” “This is something that’s been part of my life for the past 10 years,” he said. He also noted that Exelrod, whom he brought into the case after Chambers, got 38 percent of the fees. “My point,” Kay said, “is that I didn’t do this for any monetary gain, but to keep the case from being impaired. The last thing I wanted to do was hire another lawyer.” Kirk Jenkins, a partner at Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold who argued the case before the Supreme Court in September, referred questions to partner and lead lawyer Steven Wasserman. Wasserman could not be reached for comment.

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