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Article: Five Tips for Drafting Effective Legal Billing Guidelines

June 11, 2020

A recent Law 360 article by Chris Seezen, “5 Tips for Drafting Effective Legal Billing Guidelines” reports on tips for drafting effective legal billing guidelines.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Relationships with outside counsel have taken on increased scrutiny as companies become more focused on the administrative processes of their legal departments and the work they do.  As a result, legal departments are looking more closely at the law firms they hire, what they pay those firms and the outcomes of the cases they've handled.

To properly manage outside counsel, it's imperative to implement and maintain effective legal billing guidelines.  These rules serve as a working guide to determine expectations and processes, allowing a legal department to decide with their law firms what they will and won't pay for, to set processes for staffing cases and requesting rate increases, and to lay out how matters will be handled.  This can include whether a company has a specific budget on a given matter and when it should be submitted, how budget revisions should be handled, or what to do when a matter goes over budget.  It's all about setting the table with the necessary information before the work begins.

Drafting legal billing guidelines requires a legal department to actively assess its case management practices, evaluate its law firm relationships and monitor ongoing guideline compliance — all of which are beneficial to keep track of. While some vendors or partners might not need much beyond a simple contract — such as an IT team, for example — when working with a more complex and costly service such as a law firm, having legal billing guidelines in place is a wise step for the investment and relationship.

To draft effective and enforceable legal billing guidelines, legal departments should consider the following:

Include all pertinent information in an easy-to-read format.

Including a process for law firms to get authorization for new timekeepers or rate increases, or determining a specific person in the department these requests should be sent to are examples of the kind of information that should be ironed out before a new law firm relationship begins.  Depending on the size of the firm, invoicing may be handled primarily by a billing department that doesn't have direct involvement in the matter, so providing all necessary details will improve compliance.

Additionally, most companies prefer to be billed monthly, but some may only want to be billed once services reach a certain amount and may request for the firm to hold the bill until the next pay cycle.  This is another matter that should be determined before work rolls out.  Although the latter option is a convenient way to cut down on administrative costs, monthly bills are still recommended as they keep information flow consistent and recent legal tasks top of mind.

Similar to other business documents, billing guidelines should be organized and presented in an easy-to-review format.  This may include using bullet points and lists instead of long sentences or paragraphs.  Additionally, similar items should be positioned together or organized in categories to keep the guidelines as straightforward as possible, such as travel bills/logistics, noncompensable administrative processes, etc.

Providing a brief overview that highlights the takeaways or expectations in bite-sized format, in addition to a more in-depth document, will also help to present the guidelines in a digestible way that supports compliance.

Identify the purpose of the guidelines.

Many legal departments use these guidelines to better control outside counsel costs.  In this case, they should outline all areas considered noncompensable (such as office overhead, scheduling or review of local rules) or that will have a cap.  The guidelines may also include protocol on matter management practices such as status update requirements or case staffing limitations.  Including this information, as well as requirements for any possible exceptions, will inform outside counsel how to approach similar matters upfront.

Draft a living document and reevaluate the guidelines as needed.

Although important to determine at the outset of the relationship, billing guidelines for outside counsel should not be set in stone.  While what's initially decided and drafted may seem appropriate, needs may change once set into practice and as time goes on.  Some requirements may prove too burdensome on outside counsel while other areas may be too lenient.  Additionally, there will always be that one matter that's the exception to the rule and the guidelines should cover those outlier cases.  Implementing an annual review of the billing guidelines will allow general counsel to revise and incorporate new procedures that best fit the company's needs.

Failing to review the guidelines regularly can cause legal departments to miss accommodations such as new travel time billing (for a case in a city with heavy traffic, for example) or important regulatory changes that may surface.  Therefore, even though a good rule of thumb is to review and update the general guidelines annually, the above situations and others like them should be updated in real time.  It's important to maintain a process that supports the company's evolving requirements.

Additionally, many billing guidelines include hiring protocol to cover what kind of attorney a company wants working on their claims, who will be carrying out tasks that vary in complexity, and what the rate will be for each.  When reviewing bills more closely to ensure they adhere to preexisting guidelines, companies are more likely to catch discrepancies in these agreements (such as an attorney billing time for work that a paralegal should be doing) and can call attention to the matter, lower their rate, or revise the guidelines to reflect the request.

Anticipate and prepare for resistance.

No one likes someone looking over their shoulder or second-guessing their work.  Outside counsel provides a valuable service to legal departments and should be properly compensated for it.  However, some law firms may be resistant to the implementation of billing guidelines, viewing them as intrusive or in place only to cut their bills.  Billing guidelines are becoming standard practice for legal departments, and almost every law firm has a client with billing requirements.  Informing outside counsel of the guideline implementation, as well as the purposes behind it, will help to alleviate any misunderstanding or animosity.

Stand by the guidelines.

The most important piece to consider when implementing billing guidelines is enforcement.  Many legal departments have them in place, but don't have the internal resources to ensure outside counsel is complying.  Failing to enforce the guidelines not only makes the time and effort to draft them a waste, but it can also undermine a company's position with its outside counsel.  In a newer relationship, enforcing the guidelines sets an important precedence.

To ensure all expectations are fairly treated in the event of a billing discrepancy, companies can ask to adjust the current bill down or request a current or future discount.  Referring to the guidelines will serve as leverage for this request.  For law firms that continue to violate agreements, companies have every right to discontinue their work with them.

The purpose of this method is to more clearly show rates that are being paid for the work that's being done.  Fostering a fair and transparent process is the ultimate goal.

Drafting, implementing and enforcing legal billing guidelines for outside counsel allows legal departments to be stewards of their company resources while maintaining control over case management.  For cost savings, streamlined administrative processes and deeper insight into their billing procedures, companies must invest the adequate time and effort into their initial and evolving guidelines — the foundation of a productive relationship with outside counsel.

Article: Fee Sharing Between Discharged Counsel and New Counsel in Contingent Fee Cases

June 5, 2020

A recent The Legal Intelligencer article by Sarah Sweeney and Thomas Wilkinson of Cozen O'Connor, “Fee Division Between Discharged Counsel and New Counsel in Contingent Fee Cases” reports on the division of attorney fees between discharged counsel and new counsel in contingency fee matters.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

When a client terminates, without cause, its legal representation in a contingent fee matter and subsequently retains new counsel from a different firm, the Rules of Professional Conduct related to the division and disbursement of fees impose certain requirements on the successor attorney.  The American Bar Association recently issued Formal Opinion 487—ABA Formal Opinion 487 (Fee Division with Client’s Prior Counsel), June 18, 2019—to identify the applicable rules, and to clarify the duties owed to the client by the successor attorney.

The opinion explains that Model Rule 1.5(e) (or its state equivalent) has no application to the division of fees in cases of successive representation.  Model Rule 1.5(e) applies to the division of fees between lawyers of different firms who are representing the client concurrently or who maintain joint ethical and financial responsibility for the matter as a whole.  Such situations are governed by Rule 1.5(b)-(c), which according to the opinion, require the successor counsel to “notify the client, in writing, that a portion of any contingent fee earned may be paid to the predecessor attorney.”

Specifically, Rule 1.5(b) requires attorneys to communicate the rate or basis of legal fees, and Rule 1.5(c) requires that the written fee agreement include the method of determining the fee.  Both subsections are designed to ensure that the client has a clear understanding of the total legal fee, how it will be computed, and when and by whom it will be paid.  When a client replaces its original counsel with new counsel in a contingent fee matter, the discharged attorney may have a claim for fees under quantum meruit or pursuant to a clause in the contingency fee agreement; and the successor counsel’s failure to communicate to the client the existence of such claim would run afoul of Rule 1.5(b)-(c).  Therefore, even if the exact amount or percentage (if any) owed to the first attorney is unknown at the time, it is incumbent on the successor attorney to advise a contingency client of the existence and effect of the predecessor attorney’s claim for fees as part of the terms and conditions of the engagement from the outset.

While the foregoing ABA guidance is reasonable, Model Rule 1.5(b) and (c) do not provide the most compelling basis to obligate successor counsel to advise the client of predecessor’s possible fee claim.  As explained in Pennsylvania Bar Association Formal Opinion 2020-200: Obligations of Successor Contingent Fee Counsel to Advise Client of Potential Obligations to Prior Counsel, “a contingent fee agreement that fails to mention that some compensation may be due to, or claimed by, the predecessor counsel in circumstances addressed by this opinion is inconsistent with Rules 1.4(b) and 1.5(c),” which “mandate that successor counsel provide written notice that compensation may be claimed by Lawyer 1, and explain the effect of that claim on Lawyer 2’s contingent fee.” See also Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Comm. Op. 2004-1 (“In discharging the inquirer’s obligations under Rule 1.1 (competence) and Rule 1.4 (communication), the committee recommends that the inquirer have a thorough discussion with the client about the potentials for a fee and cost claim by the discharged attorney, and how such a claim, if made, might affect the inquirer’s representation of that client and/or the client’s ultimate distribution, if there is any recovery in the client’s case.”). Pennsylvania Rule 1.4(b) is identical to Model Rule 1.4(b).

The role of the successor attorney with respect to the discharged attorney’s claim for fees should also be set forth in the engagement agreement.  The opinion advises that the engagement agreement should expressly state whether the issue is one to be decided between the discharged attorney and the client or, alternatively, whether the successor attorney will represent the client in connection with the resolution of prior counsel’s fee interest.  If the latter, the successor attorney must obtain the client’s informed consent to the conflict of interest arising from his/her dual role “as counsel for the client and a party interested in a portion of the proceeds.” (emphasis in original)  In many situations, the fees paid to the discharged and successor attorneys may not affect the client’s ultimate recovery, and the client may make an informed decision to leave the matter for the two attorneys to determine among themselves.  In resolving any such dispute, both attorneys remain bound by Rule 1.6 confidentiality or pursuant to any confidentiality provisions in any underlying settlement agreement.

Upon recovery, the successor attorney must comply with Rule 1.15(d) by notifying the discharged attorney of the receipt of funds.  However, client consent is required prior to disbursement of any fees that may be payable to the discharged attorney.  If there is a disagreement about the discharged attorney’s claim or the amount owed, the successor attorney must hold the disputed fees in a client trust account under Rule 1.15(e) until the dispute is resolved.

The Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (board) has proposed that the guidance in the opinion be incorporated into the comment supporting Pennsylvania Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 governing fees.  Recognizing that the opinion is not binding precedent, the board’s published notice for comment dated Dec. 7, 2019 stated that the opinion represents “helpful guidance to successor counsel and predecessor counsel in this common situation.  The original lawyer in a contingency-fee matter will often assert a lien on the proceeds.  But if the client retains new counsel, that client may not understand there is a continuing obligation to pay the original lawyer for the value that lawyer contributed or was entitled to under the original fee agreement.”

The board has proposed amending Comment [4] of Rule 1.5 to expressly reference the opinion.  The comment period has expired, so practitioners should proceed on the assumption that the board’s recommendation will likely be approved by the Supreme Court.  While adoption of the new proposed comment will not make compliance with all aspects of the opinion mandatory, practitioners would be wise to include a written notice to clients that a portion of the fee may be claimed by predecessor counsel.  In addition, successor counsel should confirm in writing any undertaking to resolve the prior counsel’s fee interest.  Since the opinion characterizes this as involving a conflict of interest requiring the client’s informed consent to a waiver, the successor firm should also confirm that consent in writing.  In this respect the opinion goes further than previous bar association ethics guidance in Pennsylvania.

Inclusion of an express reference to an ABA or other ethics opinion in the text of a comment to a disciplinary rule is highly unusual.  An alternative would have been to instead include a concise summary of that guidance.  In any event, the Disciplinary Board presumably felt it appropriate to supplement the guidance on this important topic to lawyers handling contingent fee cases because lawyers often fail to engage in earnest efforts to resolve the respective fee interests promptly after successor counsel is retained, leaving the unsuspecting client exposed to complications, potential litigation and delays over the allocation of fees and costs following an award or settlement.

When asked by a prospective client to replace the client’s counsel in a pending contingency fee case, attorneys and firms should be mindful of the duties imposed by the opinion on successor counsel, as well as the specific Rules of Professional Conduct in the relevant jurisdiction and any other applicable substantive law or authority.  In many cases compliance with the new guidance will require updating contingent fee agreements, as well as ensuring the client is adequately informed of the prior counsel’s fee interest and how it will be addressed in the event of a recovery.

Sarah Sweeney is professional responsibility and compliance counsel at Cozen O’Connor.  She serves as co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s professional guidance committee.  Thomas G. Wilkinson is a leader of the legal professionals practice group at Cozen O’Connor.  He is a member of the professional guidance committee and the ABA standing committee on professionalism.

Article: Recovering Attorney Fees Under ‘Tort of Another’ in California

June 2, 2020

A recent article by Gregory G. Brown, “Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees in CA Under the ‘Tort of Another’” reports on the recovery of attorney fees under the Tort of Another doctrine in California.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Under the “American Rule” each party to a lawsuit is responsible for their own attorney’s fees and costs absent a contractual agreement or statutory exception. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1021).  This rule can often lead to inequitable results, particularly where the cost of defending a lawsuit exceeds the damages at issue.  One exception to the “American Rule” which allows a defendant to recovery their attorney’s fees is the “tort of another doctrine.”

What is the Tort of Another Doctrine?

The tort of another doctrine is an exception to the “American Rule” which allows for recovery of attorney’s fees which are incurred as a result of another party’s wrongful actions.  Consider the following scenario: a real estate agent lists a property for sale.  Buyer makes an offer to the agent, and the agent tells Buyer that the Seller has accepted.  Several months later however, the agent tells Buyer that Seller has pulled out of the deal, resulting in Buyer filing a lawsuit against Seller and the agent.  At trial the Court finds that the Seller never accepted Buyer’s offer, and the agent had lied when he had made that claim to Buyer.  Under that scenario, the tort of another doctrine would allow Buyer to recover its attorney’s fees from the real estate agent for causing Buyer to incur attorney’s fees by suing the innocent Seller.

When Does the Tort of Another Doctrine Apply?

In order for the tort of another doctrine to apply, an actual tort claim must be committed by the party required to pay attorney’s fees. If there is no tort by a third party, the tort of another doctrine does not apply.  Further, the doctrine only applies where “exceptional circumstances” are present and not where attorney’s fees are incurred by a party solely in defense of their own alleged wrongdoing.  Thus if a party’s own wrongful conduct is part of the reason it is forced to defend a lawsuit, the doctrine would not be applicable.

Who Can Seek Fees Through the Tort of Another Doctrine?

Both Plaintiffs and Defendants in a lawsuit can seek fees through the tort of another doctrine.  The doctrine applies to any person who through the tort of another has been required to act in the protection of his interests by bringing or defending an action against a third person.

Article: How to Avoid Attorney Fees Disputes in California

May 25, 2020

A recent Daily Journal article by Heather L. Rosing and David M. Majchrzak, “The Evolution of Fee Disputes: How To Protect Yourself in a New Day & Age” reports on avoiding attorney fee disputes in California.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

While attorneys and clients have always disputed over fees, the number and severity of clashes appear to have risen in recent years, with notable consequences.  We are a service industry, and what we are selling is our skill and our time, with only so many hours in the day.  If an attorney is not paid, especially if that person is in a small firm or in solo practice, the situation can have a significant impact on the ability to continue operations and meet expenses.  It is therefore critical for every practitioner to carefully examine ways of avoiding these disputes, which can also sometimes lead to counterclaims for legal malpractice.

The #1 best way for an attorney to achieve protection is to pay close attention in the case intake process.  Many attorneys embroiled in fee disputes have bemoaned accepting the client in the first place.  “Why didn’t I see the red flags?  If I did anything wrong, it was accepting this client despite my gut feeling that it was a bad idea!”

When considering accepting a new client, the attorney should ask why the client needs legal services and what the goal is.  Understanding what your client hopes to get out of the representation will allow you to assess what it will cost to provide the services.  In turn, this allows you to formulate a rough budget, and discuss with the potential client whether that person has ability to fund the representation.  A large number of fee disputes occur simply because the client is surprised by the cost of legal services and is not financially prepared for the situation.

Another critical inquiry is whether the client has had other attorneys assist with the same matter.  Who came before you?  Were they terminated?  Does the client owe them money?  Maybe there were several attorneys before you.  What does this mean?  Is it a red flag?  If the potential client’s history of representation makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the right client for you.

Once you have decided to accept the representation, it is time to fashion the fee agreement, which requires a careful examination of Business and Professions Code Section 6147 for contingency fee matters and Business and Professions Code Section 6148 for hourly matters. Among other requirements, these statutes mandate that fee agreements must be signed by both the attorney and the client.  The client must be provided with a copy.  Critically, the failure to ensure that your fee agreement conforms to the statutory requirements of the Business and Professions Code could give the client having the option of voiding your fee agreement, leaving you with a quantum meruit claim, which is less preferable than a fee claim based on a contract.

But complying with the Business and Professions Code is not enough.  The agreement should clearly state the scope of the representation, and, in certain circumstances, discuss what is not included.  If neither you nor the client are clear on exactly what you are doing for the client, a fee dispute may ensue.  The 1993 case of Nichols v. Keller, 15 Cal. App. 4th 1672, further describes the potential malpractice-related consequences of failing to clarify the scope of engagement and make referrals on issues related to your representation.

For hourly engagements, it is also important to determine whether an advance retainer is necessary and whether the client has the ability to make that payment.  If, for example, you are going to represent someone in a business litigation matter, and you request a $10,000 retainer, and they balk, this is a good indicator that they will not be able to sustain your fees.  Prudent practitioners often times require that the retainer be regularly replenished and that the client provide a special pretrial retainer in an amount necessary to try the case 60-90 days before trial.

While a properly drafted contingency fee agreement provides the attorney with a lien on the recovery, hourly arrangements do not automatically include a lien.  If an hourly attorney is interested in securing a lien through the initial fee agreement, Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8.1 (Business Transactions with a Client and Pecuniary Interests Averse to the Client) and the 2004 case of Fletcher v. Davis, 33 Cal. 4th 61 should be studied.  It is possible to obtain a valid charging lien in an hourly case with the proper documentation, and it is oftentimes prudent to get one if there is an expected recovery from a third party.

Another consideration is whether your arrangement is for a flat fee.  Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 not only discusses the concept of an unconscionable or illegal fee, but also, in subsection (e), sets forth the circumstances in which a flat fee is allowable.  This must be read in conjunction with Rule of Professional Conduct 1.15(b), which describes the special language that must be included in the fee agreement in order to place a flat fee in your operating account.  It is also important for an attorney to clearly differentiate between an advance retainer and a flat fee for the client, as unsophisticated consumers of legal services may not readily understand the difference.

The fee agreement should also discuss the issue of fee disputes up front.  For example, you can include language that says that the client should bring any problems with any bill to your attention within 30 days of receipt, so that you can proactively address them.  The agreement can also let the client know that, in the event of a fee dispute, the client has the option of participating in mandatory fee arbitration through the local bar association, pursuant to Business and Professions Code Section 6200 et seq.  In the event that the dispute cannot be resolved through Bar Association arbitration, the fee agreement can mandate private arbitration, if that is your preference.

There are many resources for crafting the best fee agreement.  The State Bar of California has form fee agreements at www.calbar.org, and some legal malpractice insurers provide sample language. It is important, though, to take the time to customize every fee agreement to the specific situation, so both the attorney and the client are clear on the terms of engagement from the outset.

The next step in avoiding fee disputes is to do upfront budgeting combined with the issuance of regular bills.  There is no downside to letting the client know early and often what the matter will cost. In litigation, because the cost can vary significantly based on how the dispute evolves, it may be necessary to update the budget at regular intervals.  Disputes are far less likely if the client is not surprised by a bill.

Business and Professions Code Section 6148 discusses certain requirements for billing fees: “All bills rendered by an attorney to a client shall clearly state the basis thereof.  Bills for the fee portion of the bill shall include the amount, rate, basis for calculation, or other method of determination of the attorney’s fees and costs.”  For costs, the statute requires that “[b]ills for the cost and expense portion of the bill shall clearly identify the costs and expenses incurred and the amount of the costs and expenses.”  There also certain requirements about responding to a client request for a bill.

The State Bar of California also provides use full guidance to attorneys in the form of fee arbitration advisories, which can be found at http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Attorneys/Attorney-Regulation/Mandatory-Fee-Arbitration/Arbitration-AdvisoriesThese advisories deal with a variety of common issues, such as bill padding, nonrefundable retainer provisions, determination of a reasonable fee, the form of proper billing, and much more.  Knowing upfront what can cause a fee dispute puts you way ahead of the game.

Another key to avoiding fee disputes is clear communication.  The Rules of Professional Conduct require that attorneys keep clients updated on significant developments.  The proactive practitioner, however, will go far beyond this, frequently talking and emailing with the client about case status, strategy, goals, and budgeting.

Sometimes, however, despite clear and frequent communication about the matter and regular bills, the client simply lacks the cash flow to fund the continued representation.  In that instance, the attorney should have a candid conversation with the client as soon as possible.  It may be that the client is desirous of settlement in light of the situation.  The client may choose to liquidate investments or seek the help of friends and family members to fund the representation.  It may be that a payment plan is appropriate.  It may be that the attorney is comfortable continuing with representation because the attorney has a valid lien that complies with the Rules of Professional Conduct.  A failure to proactively address nonpayment, however, exacerbates the situation and increases the likelihood of a disintegration of the attorney-client relationship.

The consequences of allowing a full-blown fee dispute to emerge can be severe.  Not only can the fee dispute affect the ability of the attorney to run his or her law firm, but fee disputes can lead to counter allegations of malpractice, true or not.  It is well-known that lawsuits for fees invite cross-claims for malpractice.  Then, the attorney has to fund an insurance deductible and faces the prospect of increased premiums (and potentially insurability issues) in the future.  If the attorney is uninsured, this means that he or she must raise or reserve a substantial sum for the defense of the claim.  Litigation over the malpractice issues also interrupts the attorney’s normal operations and can cause high levels of stress and anxiety.  Finally, even an attorney goes through the whole process to secure a judgment for his or her fees, there may be issues with collectibility and bankruptcy.  Most fee awards are dischargeable in a Chapter 7 proceeding.

The solution is straightforward and commonsensical — a thoughtful case intake procedure, a tightly crafted fee agreement, proactive budgeting, and regular billing and communications.  These four steps will help you maximize your revenues, best serve the clients, and avoid unpleasant proceedings with client you once served.

Heather L. Rosing and David M. Majchrzak practice in the areas of legal ethics, risk management, and litigation of professional liability claims at Klinedinst PC in San Diego.

Article: Courts, Others Can See Your Request for Attorney Fees

May 20, 2020

A recent Lexology article by Tyler Maulsby, “Fee Applications: Be Careful What You Wish For Because Everyone May Find Out” reports on the recent case involving an attempt to destroy law firm billing records and fee data in a FOIA case.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

A recent spat between King & Spalding LLP (“K&S”) and the U.S. Department of Justice shows what can happen when a law firm tries to balance its interest in protecting the confidentiality of its billing information with its interest in pursuing an award of attorneys fees.  In King & Spalding v. United States Department of Health and Human Services et al., No. 16-cv-01616 (D.D.C.), K&S, on behalf of its client, filed a complaint against the government for disclosure of documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allows for an award of attorneys’ fees in certain circumstances.  After K&S won the lawsuit, it sought fees in the amount of approximately $665,000.  In support of its motion, K&S asked to file its bills under seal arguing that public disclosure of its hourly rates, staffing strategies and “other details will harm the firm’s standing with respect to its competitors.”  Judge Amit Mehta the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied K&S’s request and ordered that K&S’s fee application must proceed in public view.  In response, K&S withdrew its request for fees altogether.  The firm further requested that the billing information it previously submitted remain under seal and that the court order the government to destroy its service copies of K&S’s motion.  Although the court declined to order the government to destroy the billing information, the court did permit the exhibits to K&S’s motion with the billing information to remain under seal in light of K&S’s decision to withdraw its motion

From a legal ethics standpoint this case raises a number of interesting issues.  First, are legal bills confidential?  Rule 1.6(a) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct defines confidential information as information that is gained during or relating to the representation that is either (i) privileged, (ii) likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client if disclosed; or (iii) information that the client has asked the lawyer to keep confidential. However, Rule 1.6(b)(5)(ii) permits a lawyer to disclose confidential information in order to “establish or collect a fee."  As a result, even if information about how much the lawyer charged a client is “confidential“ within the meaning of the ethics rules, the lawyer would be permitted to disclose that information in order to establish or collect a fee, which includes a fee application.

Second, does a law firm have an independent interest in keeping its bills confidential?  In the above case, K&S argued that it needed to keep information about its hourly rates and staffing decisions under seal in order to protect its competitive advantage in the marketplace.  Although the district court disagreed, it is worth noting that the court’s decision focused on the fact that K&S was seeking fees from a governmental agency, meaning that any fee award would ultimately be paid by taxpayers.  In other cases not involving public funds, a court may have more leeway to seal billing records, especially if all of the parties agree in advance.

Third, be careful about inadvertently disclosing privileged information. In many jurisdictions, including New York, billing records are generally not protected by the attorney-client privilege.  However, descriptions in billing records that are detailed enough to disclose advice provided to a client or other communications concerning the representation may be protected and should be redacted prior to filing.

Finally, before filing a fee application, the lawyer should make sure that everyone is on the same page about whether the application can and will proceed under seal.  This may include requesting advance leave from the court and consent of opposing counsel. In K&S’s case, it seems that the district court reversed its original decision to allow the firm to submit records under seal.  However, in either case, if there is a possibility that the lawyer will not be permitted to file under seal, the lawyer should consult with his or her client and determine whether the client still wants the lawyer to proceed with the application.

Tyler Maulsby is a Partner at Frankfurt Kurtnit Klein & Selz PC in New York.  He is counsel to the Litigation, Legal Ethics & Professional Responsibility, and Securities Fraud & White Collar Defense practice groups.  He is listed as a 2019 “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers magazine.