Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes

The NALFA

News Blog

Law Firm Billing Tips For Good Client Relations

December 1, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Aebra Coe, “Law Firm Billing Tips For Avoiding An Irate Client,” reports that a recent lawsuit filed against K&L Gates LLP by a client unhappy with a legal bill highlights some common pitfalls that law firms face when it comes to billing practices, but there are ways to avoid a similar situation, experts say.  The lawsuit against K&L Gates, which was filed in August by Chicora Life Center LC, accuses the firm of using several tactics to increase its bill for representing the bankrupt medical center in a Chapter 11 proceeding over a lease termination dispute.

Some of the alleged billing practices are not entirely uncommon among law firms, according to two experts who declined to comment directly on the lawsuit but provided their thoughts on client billing more generally.  The alleged practices include "block billing," where a lawyer "blocks" together a number of tasks over a set amount of hours; "hoarding," when an overqualified lawyer with a high billing rate retains work rather than passing it on to someone with a lower billing rate; and "multibilling," which occurs when multiple attorneys are tasked with performing the same work.

"All of those things mentioned have been going on for years and years.  This is not at all new," said James Wilbur, an expert on law firm billing at consulting firm Altman Weil Inc.  Regardless of how the K&L Gates suit shakes out in court, other law firms are likely looking for ways to avoid being in a similar position.  While such situations are not entirely preventable because clients can sometimes file bad-faith suits, there are steps firms can take to ensure clients are as happy as possible with a bill at the conclusion of a matter, Wilbur said.

He suggested firms rely on three things to accomplish this: technology, training and collaboration.  E-billing software can often catch double billing and block billing, he said, as well as phrases that might irk a client, like "reviewed phone notes," that may not indicate that the time spent added any value to the matter.

And that leads to training, which should be conducted at all levels on a regular basis so that any attorney or paralegal who puts together a bill is aware of best practices and is skilled in conveying the value brought to the client via the time the individual spent working, he said.  Senior attorneys billing for work that could be done by someone more junior is another beast, Wilbur said, and one that law firm management must work to dissuade by encouraging collaboration and the sharing of work.

Clients have many different rules when it comes to fees, but "no surprises" is a big one, said Toby Brown, chief practice management officer at Perkins Coie LLP.  "The bottom-line answer is more transparency.  And more real-time updates about what's going on," Brown said.  "The lawyers are uncomfortable talking about these things, and so they don't talk about them head-on."

He said lawyers and clients can often get wrapped up in the legal issues at hand, with fee issues taking a back seat.  For example, if the volume of discovery in a major case increases substantially, a conversation on cost might not always occur, but it should, he said.  Real-time sharing of information on the cost of a matter is vital, Brown said.  He said his firm has worked to incorporate the help of its project management team to flag when the scope of a matter has changed so that the attorney on the matter is aware a conversation is needed.

The firm has also implemented technology that goes beyond basic e-billing software to allow attorneys to better monitor their budget on a matter, he said.  Ultimately, according to Wilbur, having a strong relationship with a client to begin with will go a long way.

"Even in a firm that's highly ethical and has training around these issues, mistakes are going to happen. Something is going to creep through," he said.  "The first thing is you have to have a good enough relationship with the client so they know they can text or email you, pick up the phone and point out a problem in the bill, and you will deal with it without arguing."

When contacted by Law360 for comment about its case, K&L Gates described Chicora's claims as "a transparent attempt to re-litigate issues that were raised and rejected years ago through final orders in a concluded bankruptcy."  A third-party fee examiner, it said, expressly found that the fees requested by the firm were reasonable and should be recoverable, and then the bankruptcy court adopted that determination.  "We are confident the present claims also will be rejected," the firm said.

Demand for Contingency Fees Grows Amid Pandemic

November 30, 2020

A recent Law.com story by Dan Roe, “Demand for Contingency Fees in Business Litigation Grows Amid Pandemic,” reports that contingency fees are not only confined to personal injury matters.  In the midst of the recession and pandemic, some firms are increasingly taking on contingency fee matters in business litigation and commercial cases.  Business owners who don’t have the cash on hand to front litigation costs are turning to law firms that work on contingency and are willing to absorb case costs, say firm leaders, who report a rise in contingency fee inquiries since the beginning of the pandemic.

Morgan & Morgan is one of the largest personal injury firms in the country, but it also has a 24-lawyer group dedicated to business disputes.  William B. Lewis, the firm’s business trial group co-managing partner, said the practice has seen a 20% to 25% increase in contingency cases — the only type they do — since the pandemic began.  The firm recently hired an associate out of law school to join the group and plans to hire three or four additional attorneys in the next six months.

The cost of hiring an hourly law firm or trying a case can exceed the cash positions of many businesses with legitimate disputes, said Lewis in an interview.  “Trying a case can cost almost as much as everything leading up to it,” Lewis said.  “Even in a two year litigation cycle, it could be $300,000 in attorney’s fees to try a case.  There are pressure points for folks to settle even if they have a valid, strong claim.  We allow clients to try cases because they don’t have to pay huge amounts to get cases in front of a jury.”

Commercial litigation boutique Cain & Skarnulis in Austin, Texas, is also taking an increased number of cases on contingency.  “There are some good business contingency fee cases coming,” founding partner Steve Skarnulis said in an interview.  “I’d estimate that over the last six months we’ve seen inquiries for at least twice as many contingent fee cases and have probably taken 25% more than we normally would.”

And in New York, the commercial litigation boutique The Stolper Group is also seeing more contingency fee questions than usual.  “There’s definitely been an uptick in inquiries,” founding partner Michael Stolper said in an interview.  “Those who do commercial contingency have to be very selective in cases so I wouldn’t say we’re doing more or less than before, but there have been a lot more inquiries now during the pandemic.”

Financial hardship and disputes that stem from it are driving demand for contingency fee arrangements, firm leaders say.  “We’ve had investment loss cases, securities cases where brokers mismanage money and dump everything into an account after the pandemic when they didn’t have the authorization from the client to do so, an uptick in legal malpractice, and real estate commission cases,” Lewis said about the type of matters Morgan & Morgan has handled on contingency.

The firm’s business trial group is also representing community associations in construction defect claims because of the high costs involved in litigating and the fact that community associations hesitate to shift those costs onto their members, Lewis said.  At Cain & Skarnulis, landlords are turning to the litigation firm to handle disputes with commercial tenants on a contingency fee basis, Skarnulis said.

Firms that specialize in commercial contingency may offer a number of fee arrangements, based on the details of the case.  Tiered fee arrangements such as those at Morgan & Morgan’s business trial group may charge 25% to 35% for an early resolution, whereas a more time-consuming trial may net the firm 35% to 45% of a judgment.  Other firms engage in hybrid arrangements, where attorneys charge a reduced hourly rate and a smaller percentage of a recovery.

Clients may look to firms to absorb case costs as well.  Court costs and associated fees such as electronic document management can cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Lewis said, so firms may also agree to front those costs in exchange for a higher percentage of the recovery.

Big Law firms may not be promoting contingency arrangements, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing them, said Davie, Florida-based legal consultant Joe Ankus.  “I do think some of largest firms in the world will take on a contingency case if they believe at the outset the odds of recovery or settlement justify taking the risk,” he said.  “Twenty-five years ago, that wouldn’t have happened at Am Law 100 firms.  Now, people have adjusted to the new normal.”  The prospect of collecting significant damages against a major corporate defendant — and the possibility of punitive damages — may entice large firms that have historically abstained from contingency cases, he added.

Meanwhile, Skarnulis said he’s seeing traditional plaintiff’s firms — more adept at selecting contingency cases than hourly firms — get involved in contingency business litigation, as well as mid-size firms that specialize in commercial litigation.

The 18-attorney Miami litigation boutique Podhurst Orseck is handling contingency cases related to the pandemic, such as business interruption cases against insurance companies.  “It’s a huge financial and time commitment, putting our resources into claims on a complete risk basis,” partner Steven Marks said in an October interview.  “On the opposite side, if we’re successful, it’s very good for the firm.”

Marks said the firm’s historical contingency revenues make up 70% to 80% of the firm’s total revenue, while comprising about 50% of cases.  Overall, the economic downturn from COVID-19 has accelerated an ongoing trend, paved by personal injury firms, to extend the realm of contingency work, said Ankus.  “If you were to talk to me 25 years ago and say, ‘Joe, how many law firms are doing contingency work?’ I’d have told you none or less than 5%,” he said.  “Today, the number has exponentially increased to where many firms, more often than not, will readily take on a contingency matter.”

Chancery Court: Railroad Operator’s Attorney Fees Must Be Covered

November 27, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Rose Krebs, “Railroad Operator’s Fees Must Be Covered Chancery Says,” reports that a Delaware vice chancellor ruled that American Rail Partners LLC must cover legal expenses incurred by a railroad ownership company that it sued over unjust enrichment claims, saying an agreement in place "unambiguously" provides that expenses be covered.  In a 24-page memorandum opinion, Vice Chancellor Paul A. Fioravanti Jr. said fee advancement provisions of American Rail Partners' limited liability agreement are "quite broad" and unambiguous.

"For purposes of this action, there is no dispute that the plaintiffs are covered persons under the broad advancement and indemnification provisions of the company's limited liability company agreement," the opinion said.  International Rail Partners LLC, its manager Gary O. Marino and Boca Equity Partners LP sued American Rail for the advancement of fees earlier this year, asserting that their LLC agreement entitles them to "mandatory advancement and indemnification" related to a suit filed in the First State's Superior Court in February.

Boca Equity is the sole owner and only member of International Rail, according to court filings. International Rail is one of two members of American Rail, the opinion said.  Despite the "broad scope" of the advancement provisions, American Rail had argued it should not be required to advance legal fees because the LLC agreement "does not provide indemnification for claims between the company and any covered person — what it calls 'first-party claims,'" the suit said.

American Rail argued that "an indemnification or advancement provision may only cover first-party claims if it expressly says so," the opinion said.  The vice chancellor, however, said that argument was "not based upon a plain reading" of the agreement, and there is a "strong public policy in favor of indemnification and advancement" in Delaware.  That policy aims to assure key corporate officers that they will not have to shoulder the risk of paying legal expenses for claims related to the performance of their duties, the opinion said.

In April, Vice Chancellor Fioravanti refused to toss the suit, saying questions remained about fee advancement provisions agreed to by the parties. The vice chancellor said he couldn't conclude as a "matter of law" that American Rail offered the only "reasonable" interpretation of the applicable limited liability agreement.  Although Vice Chancellor Fioravanti identified certain shortcomings with how the complaint was pled, including a failure to invoke certain advancement provisions that were later referenced in briefings, he said there was not enough cause to toss the Chancery Court suit.

Judge to Award $1.5M in Fees in Walgreens Wage Settlement

November 26, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Lauren Berg, “Calif. Walgreens Workers Bag $4.5M Wage Deal,” reports that Walgreens and a class of workers have received a California federal judge's approval for their $4.5 million settlement to resolve claims that the pharmacy chain broke Golden State labor law by not paying all wages to employees at its distribution centers.  U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb granted preliminary approval to the class action settlement that will see about 2,600 workers split $2.8 million, finding that the deal is fair and gives the workers a good recovery that might have been at risk had the case gone to trial.

Lucas Mejia, who worked as an hourly stocker for about seven years at a Walgreens distribution center in California, launched the class action in November 2018 in the Superior Court for the County of Yolo, alleging that the company failed to pay employees for all of the compensable time they worked.  Mejia said Walgreens rounded down employees' hours on their timecards, required employees to pass through security checks before and after their shift without paying them for that time and didn't pay premium wages to workers who were denied meal breaks.

The suit also included a claim for civil penalties under the Private Attorneys General Act based on Walgreens' alleged violations of California labor law.  The case was eventually removed to federal court in Sacramento.  In December, the parties started talking with a mediator, which produced the current settlement.

In exchange for releasing all of the claims, Walgreens has agreed to pay up to $4.5 million to create a common fund, from which $2.8 million will be distributed to the estimated 2,648 class members, according to the order filed.  Each class member who does not opt out is estimated to receive about $1,200, the judge noted.

Also out of the pot, $1.5 million, or 33% of the fund, will be set aside for attorney fees, while $150,000 will go to pay PAGA penalties and $7,500 will be used as an incentive award for Mejia.  Another $50,000 will be used to pay litigation costs incurred by class counsel and settlement administration costs, according to the order.  Judge Shubb gave preliminary approval to the deal, finding that it is in the best interest of the class.

While Mejia's counsel said the labor claims could be worth up to $20.2 million and the PAGA claim up to $16 million, they said Walgreens had legitimate defenses that risked reducing the amount Mejia and the class could recover at trial, according to the order.  With that in mind, the settlement is a strong result for the class, the attorneys said, with the $4.5 million representing 22% of the potential damages.

The judge also noted that, while the deal sets aside 33% of the fund for attorney fees, Mejia's counsel said they will seek 25% of the fund in a separate motion for fees.  "The court will defer consideration of the reasonableness of counsel's fees until the fee motion is filed," the judge wrote.  "Class counsel is cautioned that the reasons for the attorney's fees should be explained further in that motion."

$45M Fee Award in $187M LIBOR MDL Settlement

November 25, 2020

A recent Law.com story by Nadia Dreid, “NY Judge ‘Surprised’ By Fee Application in Libor Rigging Case,” reports that a New York federal judge wasn't happy with the amount of hours or law firms on the attorney fee bill she received in the wake of a $187 million deal with JPMorgan and other major financial institutions over claims of interbank rate rigging, but she granted $45 million in fees anyway.  U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald said in her opinion that she was "to say the least, surprised to learn from their fee application that [exchange-based plaintiff] class counsel involved twelve additional law firms" and that the work from those firms made up nearly a fifth of the submitted hours.

"The court cannot divine any reason why it was necessary, efficient or in the best interests of the class to have twelve additional law firms litigate this case," the opinion read.  "If anything, the hours were claimed for work that was duplicative, unnecessary and easily could have been performed by the two appointed firms."

Those firms were Kirby McInerney LLP and Lovell Stewart Halebian Jacobson LLP, who were appointed as class counsel to the exchange-based plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation accusing JPMorgan, Deutsche Bank and a handful of other big banks of conspiring to rig the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor.  Judge Buchwald preliminarily approved the $187 million deal in March and gave it her final blessing in September, but she had yet to come to a final decision on attorney fees.  Ultimately, she decided that none of the 15,000 hours of additional work done by outside firms would be used in the lodestar calculations.

The court also had issues with the amount of hours billed by class counsel themselves.  Although she agreed to accept all of the more than 65,000 hours of work from the two firms, the court noted that their bill listed 10,000 hours more than their sister counsel claimed "in support of their fee application for a case of similar magnitude."  It would take a four-person law firm working on the case full-time for roughly nine years — minus a month annually for vacation — to reach the 65,000 mark, according to the court.

"While the sheer quantum of hours suggests some amount of over-litigation, the court will credit [class counsel] the full amount of time they claim," Judge Buchwald said.  The fees that the firms will walk away with comes out to 25% of the $187 million settlement, after the deduction of around $5.6 million in expenses, according to the opinion.