Contingency fee contracts predicate an attorney’s compensation on the outcome of a case. Such contracts are widely accepted when used in civil litigation by private plaintiffs who might not otherwise be able to afford legal representation. However, such arrangements are controversial when government plaintiffs like attorneys general and local governments retain private lawyers to litigate on behalf of the public in return for a percentage of any recovery from the lawsuit. Some commentators praise such public client contingency fee contracts, which have become commonplace, as an efficient way to achieve justice. Critics, however, view them as corrupt, undemocratic, and unethical.

This Comment contributes to this debate by arguing that public client contingency fee contracts are not only permissible, as some have argued, but that certain legal doctrines obligate government entities to form these contracts. First, this Comment contends that the principle that government litigators have a special duty to “seek justice” obligates government actors to enter into public client contingency fee contracts. The obligation to form such contracts is triggered when civil justice requires enforcement, but constraints prevent government attorneys from pursuing litigation. This contention undermines critics’ claim that the “seek justice” principle means public client contingency fee contracts are impermissible. Second, this Comment argues that the public trust doctrine also obliges government entities to form public client contingency fee contracts in some instances. These arguments undermine attacks on public client contingency fee contracts and demonstrate the existence of a heretofore ignored obligation in public civil litigation.