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Category: Billing Practices

$6.2M Fee Award in Virgin Airline Wage Class Action

January 21, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Vin Gurrieri, “Attys Behind $77M Virgin Wage Win Sought $13M Get $6M,” reports that lawyers for Virgin America flight attendants who recently won $77 million over claims the airline stiffed workers on pay and rest breaks were awarded nearly $6 million in fees by a California federal judge, which was about half the amount they had requested.  U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar awarded $5.7 million to attorneys representing a class of flight attendants led by named plaintiff Julia Bernstein who alleged that Virgin America Inc. flouted California labor laws by not paying them for all hours worked, including pay for overtime, and denying them state-mandated meal and rest breaks.

After having largely granted the flight attendants' bid for summary judgment, Judge Tigar a year ago awarded the flight attendants $77 million in damages.  The airline has since challenged the award to the Ninth Circuit, an appeal that is still pending.  In the meantime, Judge Tigar issued an order finding that the class members' legal representatives were due almost $6 million in fees and an additional $251,000 in court-related expenses.  That number, however, fell short of the approximately $13 million in fees and expenses the lawyers had sought.

Judge Tigar agreed with Virgin that class counsel didn't provide enough detail about certain declared hours and sided with the company in its objection to certain categories, like one labeled "other," that were billed in blocks.  "Virgin takes issue with plaintiffs' use of an 'Other' category, which accounts for 148.1 hours of the fee request," the judge said on the latter issue.  "Given that plaintiffs neglected to identify even representative examples of the types of tasks included, the court cannot award fees for those hours.  The court therefore excludes all 148.1 hours from the fee request."

The judge also shaved the billing rates of several attorneys representing the class but rejected Virgin's arguments that the class members' failure to win on certain claims warranted a significant reduction in fees awarded, leading him to arrive at the $5.7 million figure.  "Ultimately, the court finds that the hours expended were reasonable in light of the overall success achieved, and agrees that success was exceptional," Judge Tigar said.

Article: Ten Ways That Outside Counsel May Hide Overbilling

January 16, 2020

A recent Corporate Counsel article by Ryan Loro, “10 Ways That Outside Counsel Disguise Overbilling,” reports on overbilling from outside counsel.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Legal invoices can be overwhelming and nearly impossible to understand. The task of sifting through line after line of attorney time entries from outside counsel is time consuming, and more times than not, in-house legal and accounting teams may miss billing errors. Despite the complexity of legal invoices, there are ways to spot overbilling if you know what you are looking for.

According to recent industry research, large companies with big legal departments go over budget by about 37% every single year. Why do they go over budget? A big reason is overbilling from the outside law firms they hire to do work for them.

It’s become such an issue that entire companies have been formed to help businesses analyze and help organizations manage their legal spend. That’s right, lawyers sometimes pad their billable time—and there is now a growing industry to ensure that businesses pay a fair amount for their legal services.

Here are the top 10 ways law firms can hide overbilling:

Block Billing. Block billing is when a lawyer enters multiple tasks under one time period, without separating the time each task took. Here is an example from an actual time entry reviewed by SIB Legal Bill Review:

7.6 Hours: Telephone call with client regarding assignment of rents; review lease agreement of [company]; draft agreement; emails with opposing counsel; revise agreement accordingly.

Block billing obscures the value to the client and the reasonableness of the charges for a given task. If you don’t know how long it took to draft the contract (because drafting the contract is one of five tasks within a 7.6-hour block of time), you can’t tell if the charge for drafting the contract is reasonable. One study by the California Bar Association concluded that block billing increases the time charged by an average of 23%.

Intra-Office Communications. Intra-office communications is when multiple attorneys within the same firm discuss the client’s matter with each other or seek advice from a colleague about a legal issue. One of the major selling points for larger law firms is that they have a breadth of knowledge in specialized subjects. But when a lawyer seeks a colleague’s advice, the client should not have to pay for one attorney to educate another—just have the specialist handle that part of the matter.

Higher-Rate Staff Used Inappropriately. Sometimes lawyers will do work that is more appropriate for a lower-rate attorney or a paralegal. For example, if a partner’s rate is $900/hour and they perform a task that, more than likely is work that a second-year associate attorney who’s rate is $300/hour should be doing, the client will be paying an additional $600 per hour.

Excessive Time. This is the most common complaint of clients, yet has historically been the easiest for law firms to justify. Many clients have a “feeling” that a certain task took too long, but cannot explain why. SIB Legal Bill Review explains in detail the reasons a law firm should reconsider specific charges on an invoice. Here is an example:

The law firm charged 5.1 hours for work on a confidentiality agreement where opposing counsel had already provided a comprehensive draft agreement for comment and markup. This time is excessive. We propose the charge be revised to a total of 2.5 hours: 2.0 for analysis and markup of the draft agreement, and 0.5 for negotiation of points with opposing counsel.

Junior Lawyer Training. Law firms have been known to charge clients for a junior lawyer’s on-the-job training. We believe that the law firm carries the financial responsibility for training its lawyers; it is for the law firm’s long-term benefit. On an invoice we reviewed, one law firm actually charged $1,084 to the client for a junior lawyer’s time to “investigate how to file an appeal.” Of course, there is a point in the junior lawyer’s career when they need to learn how to file an appeal, but the client should not have been asked to pay for that training.

Inadequate Description. When a lawyer does not adequately describe his activity, there is no way for the client to determine if that activity added value for the client or if the charges for that activity are reasonable. Attorneys are paid to be precise in their language. It is not unreasonable to require lawyers to accurately describe how they spent their time and the client’s money. More problematic, inadequately described time can be camouflaging the fact that the attorney invented the time entry to fill his time card or increase the bill. Here is an example of a real time entry:

Attention to licensing files and review of licenses and leases; attention to pro-forma license transfer structure; additional review of proposed structure; attention to fees and timing relevant to pro-forma and non-pro forma assignment; address related licensing matter.

At first glance, it appears that this associate has done a lot of work for the client. But notice that the task descriptions are all nebulous: “attention to … ; analysis of … ;” and so on. In this particular time entry, no actual work product was produced. The client has no way of knowing what value was delivered because of this inadequate description.

Over-staffing a Given Task. Many times, a law firm will over-staff a task, using three attorneys for something that should have only taken one. More often than not, the time for all three attorneys is billed to the client. Defending a deposition and arguing a discovery motion are usually one-lawyer tasks and should be billed as such.

Duplicative Work. Duplicative work is an issue that occurs when one attorney will charge for the same task in more than one billing period, or two attorneys will charge for the same task in the same billing period. Here is our response to an instance of duplicative work:

Junior lawyer charged 25.1 hours ($6,149.50) to draft motion for summary judgment. Senior lawyer charged 14.6 hours ($4,844) to draft the same motion at a later date.

In this particular case, the client did not receive 39.7 hours of work. If the law firm decided to push a motion for summary judgment draft onto a junior lawyer, only to have it rewritten by a senior lawyer, this is not the responsibility of the client.

In fact, according to a study conducted by Samford University Law School in 2007, 48.2% of lawyers believed double billing was ethical, which was up nearly 13% from 10 years prior. It would not be surprising to learn that 12 years removed from the study that the percentage of lawyers who believe double billing is ethical and acceptable has exceeded the 50% mark.

Administrative Tasks. Sometimes law firms will charge attorney or paralegal rates for tasks that could and should be done by administrative staff. The client should not pay $300 an hour for filing a court document. That type of task should be done by a legal secretary at no charge, as part of the firm’s overhead costs.

Discrepancies Between Time Entries. A simple mistake that happens more often than you would think is when two lawyers attend the same meeting but charge different amounts of time for doing so. Another example in discrepancies between time entries occurs when one lawyer charges for an in-office task when another time entry shows she was not in the office that day. The variations of discrepant time entries are many, but the conclusion is singular: one of the time entries is probably inaccurate.

Analyzing the line item charges on legal bills is no small task. The analysis itself is 60% experience in legal practice, 30% psychology, and 10% mechanics and mathematics. Unfortunately for many businesses, computers can only assist in the last and smallest category. Then, when the analysis is done, someone has to negotiate with the billing attorney to convince him that certain charges are unreasonable and should be removed from the bill.

All of this is a daunting task. There is hope for businesses who fear they are being overcharged. Even if you don’t have the resources inside your organization, these functions can be outsourced. Legal bill review services help to increase efficiency and take the burden away from in-house teams and businesses so that they can focus on their work. Finding a legal bill review service that analyzes every line item of all of your invoice every single month is an important and efficient way to help reduce your organization’s legal spend with outside counsel.

Ryan Loro is the president of SIB Legal Bill Review.

Hourly Rates and Billing Practices Questioned in Ditech Bankruptcy

December 13, 2019

A recent American Lawyer story by Samantha Stokes, “Weil Facing Sharp Fee Objections in Ditech Bankruptcy,” reports that a U.S. trustee is asking a New York bankruptcy judge to slash fees of Weil, Gotshal & Manges and other law firms, criticizing their billing tactics and invoices in the ongoing reorganization of a mortgage origination and servicing business.  The fee applications in the Chapter 11 case of Ditech Holding Corp. “reflect numerous instances of questionable billing judgment and overstaffing,” said the U.S. Trustee’s Office in New York in court documents.   In all, professionals in the Ditech bankruptcy in the Southern District of New York billed $49.46 million for several months of work in 2019—including nearly $26 million by six law firms.

William Harrington, the Region 2 U.S. trustee, had sharp objections to fees and expenses from Weil, debtor’s counsel, as well as Pachulski Stang Ziehl & Jones, counsel to the committee of unsecured creditors.  The trustee sought to cut $451,081 from Weil’s bill and $82,779 from Pachulski Stang’s.  For its part, Weil billed $17.85 million in fees and about $443,800 in expenses for work done from Feb. 11 to Sept. 30 of this year, according to the filing.  But the trustee found the firm’s partners charged Ditech an average of $116 an hour more than it charges non-bankruptcy clients and that associates also billed higher rates than they do in other cases.

Bankruptcy rates “must be held commensurate with those charged by other practice areas” and Weil “failed to meet” the burden to demonstrate these higher fees were reasonable, the trustee said.  “Absent a sufficient justification for the discrepancy … the requested fees should not be approved.”  In specific fee objections, the trustee sought to cut $65,082 reduction for block billing, in which the firm lumped together two or more tasks without specifying the total time spent on each task; $374,824 reduction for vague billing entries; and $11,175 for excessive conference staffing.

The trustee, finding instances where Weil professionals billed for meals and local travel on days when they billed for fewer than four hours, also requested a $25,000 reduction in expenses.  California-based restructuring boutique Pachulski Stang also overbilled, according to the trustee.  The trustee sought reductions of $53,653.25 for vague billing entries; $23,446.50 for transitory professionals, who bill small amounts in a case and might provide questionable benefit, as well as “grazing,” or billing nonproductive hours such as attending meetings or reviewing correspondence; and $5,697.50 for unexplained duplicate fee entries.  The trustee sought an expense reduction of $2,001.26 for local travel, airfare and meals exceeding limits.

From Feb. 26 to Sept. 30 of this year, Pachulski Stang has billed about $2.1 million in fees and $41,074 in expenses.  Two law firms—Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, as special counsel to debtors, and Rich Michaelson Magaliff, as special industry counsel to committee of unsecured creditors—agreed to reduce fees and expenses after the trustee raised concerns, according to court papers.  Bradley Arant, which billed just over $2 million in fees and $13,329.14 in expenses from Feb. 11 to Sept. 30, reduced expenses so no meal was billed at more than $20, the maximum allowed by the Southern District of New York.

Rich Michaelson had significant time billed under “case administration,” according to the trustee, and after a discussion, it agreed to a $10,000 fee reduction for this work. In all, the firm billed $365,880 in fees and $7,803.15 in expenses from Feb. 26 to Sept. 30.  Other law firms involved in the case include Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, serving as special securitization counsel for debtors and billing nearly $1 million in fees and $3,476.45 in expenses from April 1 to Sept. 30; and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which is counsel to the official committee of consumer creditors and which billed about $2.49 million and $87,092 in expenses from May 6 to Sept. 30.  The trustee did not request any reductions from either firms’ applications.

Why Law Firms Struggle with Outside Counsel Guidelines

December 4, 2019

A recent the American Lawyer article by Dan Packel, “Why Firms Struggle With Outside Counsel Guidelines – and Pay the Price,” reports on a new survey that draws a straight line between lower realization rates and law firms’ failure to communicate the substance of outside counsel guidelines to billing attorneys.  The article reads:

Law firms are struggling to comply with clients’ outside counsel guidelines, leading to slower rates of realization and increasing write-offs, according to a recent report from timekeeping technology company Bellefield and the Association of Legal Administrators.  In the groups’ inaugural survey of respondents from nearly 200 law firms, they found that firms’ failure to communicate the substance of these guidelines to the attorneys who actually bill leads to invoices that are rejected or reduced.

“They’ve got to make that business case to attorneys,” said Patricia Nagy, a director at Proxy PR who helped write the report.  “Attorneys are being overwhelmed with new tasks, in terms of compliance and information governance, but this one hits directly and immediately to their pocketbooks if they don’t comply.”

While corporate legal departments have been probing the consequences of these outside counsel guidelines for several years, this is the first effort to gauge their impact on law firms.  The survey received participation from 198 firms, over 20% of which have over 300 attorneys.  Almost 35% had between 51 and 299 attorneys, and nearly 30% had between 10 and 50.

Nagy said that she was surprised to discover that nearly one-quarter of firms surveyed made no effort at all to communicate these guidelines to billing attorneys.  Over 52% of firms share these guidelines with attorneys via email, and 24% simply post them on the firm’s intranet, with the hopes that lawyers look at them.  “We weren’t surprised there were a lot of process failures,” Nagy said.  “What was surprising was the degree of the failures, and that a lot of them were using ‘hope’ strategies.”  Indeed, even among the firms that communicate these guidelines to billing attorneys, 82% do not require acknowledgment of receipt, and attorneys are only monitored to ensure they are following guidelines 55% of the time.

As a consequence, when navigating clients’ e-billing systems, firms are finding that an increasing number of invoices are being rejected, even as firms have managed to keep rates robust.  The ALA and Bellefield survey shows that 70% of firms believe that e-billing has not improved billing and collections, with billing and collection cycles expanding, for the most part by 30 days, according to 41% of respondents, or 60 days, per 29%.

Rejections are also a growing problem. Nearly half the firms surveyed experience 5% to 10% of their e-bills rejected or reduced.  And 15% do not appeal rejections, either because of inadequate staffing or because they treat them as a cost of doing business.  Nagy noted that as clients increasingly use metrics to evaluate outside counsel, firms that make less friction during the invoicing process are more likely to receive repeat business.

Asked how they would like to improve the process, nearly 60% of respondents asked for more visibility into what corporate law departments actually want.  This tracks with a conclusion that these guidelines have actually made it harder for firms to communicate with clients, a sentiment shared with 40% of respondents, compared to 11% who point to improved communications.  And 45% of respondents hoped for a technological solution that would help them make sense of these guidelines.  With different guidelines coming in from each client, automation becomes a particularly challenging task.

Three Places Overbilling May Be Lurking

December 2, 2019

A recent Law 360 article by Andrew Strickler, “3 Places Overbilling May Be Lurking,” reports on overbilling.  The article reads:

By most accounts, the wild ol’ days of lawyer invoicing — rampant “block” entries, unauthorized billers, a stubborn dearth of detail — are a fading memory.  Over the last two decades or so, sophisticated buyers of legal services have tightened up billing standards, poured money and time into auditing, and routinely questioned what they’re getting for all those “0.2 hour” line items.

At the same time, courts and the bar have also become far more strict about what constitutes a “good” — and ethical — legal bill and helped cure the profession of at least some of its worst timekeeping habits.  But that doesn't mean overbilling doesn't happen or that the partners and managers responsible for reviewing bills can let down their guard.

“Law firms across the board have really improved their quality control, and if it keeps up like this, one day they’ll put me out of business,” said California legal fee auditor Jim Schratz.  “But I can also say they’re still far from perfect, and sometimes they just increase the chances their bill doesn’t get paid.”

Here are three overbilling trouble spots to watch for.

All Those Meetings

Any review of a legal bill, either before it goes to the client or an audit after the fact, should include a hard look at time billed for meetings, particularly repeat “update” meetings, experts say.  Professional auditors say “interoffice” get-togethers and conference calls are routinely scrutinized by cost-conscious clients for overbilling or inefficiencies.  But many firms still bill meeting time for people not clearly involved in the active issues in a case, or reflexively bill for the entire length of a meeting that might also cover nonbillable topics.

A good rule of thumb: Meetings attended by attorneys and support staff should represent 5% or less of all time billed over the course of a matter, professional fee auditors say.  Anything more reasonably invites questions about whether the client is paying to have billers “listen in” but not really push the client’s case forward.

“There are lots of things a lawyer can’t control, like how many depositions the other side calls,” Schratz said.  “But there are plenty of things you can, including staying away from these repeat entries saying something like ‘Conference with Joe’ when it’s not clear what Joe really contributed.”

Managing a Case vs. Managing the Business

Another flashpoint for overbilling comes at the intersection of partners working with junior lawyers doing billable work, and the more “supervisory” and firm-business kinds of tasks that aren’t.  While the agreed-to billing rules of engagements can vary, as a general rule, lawyers describing substantive legal work on time sheets should avoid "delegation" or administrative-sounding descriptors — training, assigning and proofing, to name a few examples.

Elise Frejka, a New York attorney and fee expert, said clients want to see "bang for their buck" language that doesn't imply that a biller is simply overseeing another biller's work.  "There is a trust factor here, and there is also good word choice," she said.  "And if I ever see the words 'ponder' or 'consider,' well, that sounds to me like something you should be doing in the shower."

John Trunko, legal audit director at fee audit firm Stuart Maue, agreed that practice leaders and managers can confuse client and supervisory duties, particularly when they’re overseeing lawyers and paralegals spending most of their time supporting the partner's matter.  “There is some gray area there, when you’re talking about billing for a specific discussion [with a junior person] related to an aspect of a case, or if it’s really about supervising and training someone more generally on their job or even just transmitting information to them,” Trunko said.  “At some point, that does become an administrative function rather than a billable piece of legal work," he added.

“Miniblocks"

The practice of block billing, in which lawyers include a long series of billable tasks in a single time entry, is widely understood to lead to client “upcharging” and has been rightly disparaged by many judges and bar ethics committees.  And in an era of increased scrutiny on outside legal budgets, many corporations explicitly prohibit law firms from using block billing in outside counsel guidelines.  But the practice persists, even if it’s not nearly as common as it was a decade ago.

Today, fee auditors say they often see firms grouping small numbers of billable tasks in single time entries.  And such “miniblock" billing isn’t necessarily a bad thing — as long as the client doesn’t object and the described tasks are obviously related, experts say.  Still, practice group leaders and supervising partners should double-check that block entries are used consistently and moderately.  That's particularly true in the last months of the year, as associates, and many partners, feel pressure to bill every hour possible.

Kay Holmen, a senior auditor at KPC Legal Audit Services in Glendale, California, cautions against grouping more than three tasks in one block, or block billing a client for more than a single hour per entry.  Lawyers can also avoid pushback by taking some extra care to describe each step covered by a block entry.  “Take the few extra seconds.  Come up with some words that describe what you really did. If you say you’re doing document review and writing a memo, what specific document did you look at?” Holmen said.  “Don’t put a copy-and-paste description on the time sheet.”