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Category: Billing Practices

Judge Reduces Fees, Offers Primer on Legal Billing

September 13, 2017

A recent New York Law Journal story by Jason Grant, “Judge Slashes Fees, Offers Primer on Billing, in Cookbook Case,” reports that a New York federal judge has more than halved attorney fees due to an Ethiopian cookbook author who was wrongly sued for copyright infringement, finding that her defense counsel billed "excessive" hours for often straightforward work.

In July, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan of the Eastern District of New York lambasted the plaintiff, author of a different Ethiopian cookbook, for bringing "unreasonable" claims in Schleifer v. Berns, 17-cv-1649. And he awarded an as-yet-undetermined amount of attorney fees to the defendant.

Cogan turned his sights to the defendant's counsel.  He criticized Berns' lawyers at Kushnirsky Gerber, calling their requested fees "excessive" and at times "redundant," and he chopped their itemized request for $29,365 in attorney fees down to $13,055 in attorney fees (plus $316.15 in costs).  He went through the categories and tasks billed, point by point, while explaining why the hours were often too high.  Underlying his reasoning was the notion—as explained in the July dismissal decision—that the plaintiff had brought a particularly flimsy action.

"The number of hours expended [by Kushnirsky Gerber]—83.9 hours—is too many in light of the weakness of plaintiff's case and counsel's experience with copyright cases," Cogan wrote before analyzing the amounts billed.  He also said, "the court continues to be guided by the overarching purposes of the Copyright Act, that is, compensation and deterrence," and noted that "the test is whether the plaintiff 'spen[t] the minimum necessary to litigate the case effectively,'" quoting Simmons v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 575 F.3d 170, 174 (2d Cir. 2009).

Cogan wrote that, "First, it seems inherently excessive and redundant that defendant [counsel at Kushnirsky Gerber] expended 6.5 hours drafting the pre-motion conference letter in anticipation of the motion to dismiss, 33.7 hours on the motion to dismiss itself, and then 19 hours on the reply brief, for a total of 59.2 hours."

"The minimum necessary hours to have effectively litigated the motion to dismiss in this case cannot be nearly 60 hours when the case was so patently deficient," he continued, then added, "The research necessary to draft the pre-motion conference letter should certainly have transferred to the motion to dismiss and reply.  With much of the legwork already done ... the motion itself should not have taken more than 10 to 15 hours."

Continuing his breakdown, Cogan also wrote that "even though plaintiff filed an amended complaint after defendant filed her motion to dismiss, the changes to the amended complaint were so minimal that the court in fact saw no need to reinitiate motion practice.  Accordingly, the application for 19 collective hours on the reply is excessive."  In the end, Cogan ruled that "no more than 25 hours" total should be allotted to time spent on the pre-motion conference letter, motion to dismiss and reply.

He also wrote that "it is similarly unreasonable that counsel spent 3.5 hours conducting a 'Preliminary Case and Pleadings Review,'" when the complaint was only seven pages.  "Nor is it clear from the itemization which portions of time were preliminary 'case review' and which were 'pleadings review.'  Because the itemization fails to apprise the court properly … the court will not allow fees for this task," Cogan continued, adding, "Nor will the court permit fees for 1.2 hours of 'court correspondence,' as the only court correspondence on the docket (apart from the pre-motion conference letters) is a barely one-page letter asking the court to adjourn the initial status conference."

Cogan concluded by writing that Kushnirsky Gerber's final category of billing, 12 hours for preparing its fees application to him, was also too many.  "Half of the application is a general recitation of counsel's qualifications and a description of their firm and cases, and counsel's declarations … The remainder of the fee request includes the printouts of the itemizations and billing records, counsel's resumes, defendant's own declaration and her documented expenses, all of which would have (or certainly should have) been collated and put together by support staff," he wrote.

4th Circuit: In Awarding Fees, Judges Must Consider Risk and Results

June 1, 2017

A recent Reuters story by Allison Frankel, “4th Circuit: In Fee Awards, Judges Must Consider Risk and Results,” reports on a case involving contingency fee risk in awarding attorney fees.  The story reads:

In 2010, the law firm Gilbert, working on contingency, went to trial and won a $26 million judgment for Alpha, a specialized U.S. tire maker suing foreign competitors for stealing its trade secrets.  Before Gilbert could attempt to enforce the judgment, Alpha fired the firm, replacing Gilbert with a new firm co-founded by two former Gilbert lawyers.  The new firm went on to defend Alpha’s judgment on appeal and, eventually, to reach a $15.5 million settlement with the defendants.

How much money does Alpha owe Gilbert?

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals awarded Gilbert $3.1 million in fees.  The award, as I’ll explain, is not a contingency fee – but it is a stern reminder to trial judges that when lawyers assume risk in contingency fee cases, they deserve a fair reward for successful results.

Under the terms of Gilbert’s engagement agreement with Alpha, had the firm represented Alpha all the way through settlement, Gilbert would have been due a 40 percent contingency fee.  But if Alpha fired Gilbert before any recovery, the contract said, the law firm was entitled only to its hourly billings.

Before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis of Alexandria, Virginia, Gilbert claimed its lawyers worked nearly 11,000 hours on the case, at hourly rates ranging from $375 to $900, for a total lodestar of about $4.5 million.  That did not fly with Judge Ellis, to say the least.  The judge said that under Virginia state law, the fee award must be based on quantum meruit, or “as much as deserved.”  Judge Ellis said Gilbert had inflated its hours and charged unreasonable hourly rates.  He ended up awarding the firm only $1.2 million.

In January 2016, the 4th Circuit vacated and remanded the award, reminding Judge Ellis that decades-old precedent from Virginia’s highest court requires judges to consider, among several other factors, the size of the case, the risk borne by lawyers working on contingency and the results obtained.  The appeals court instructed the judge to re-analyze the fee question with those considerations in mind.

On remand, Gilbert cut its claimed hours to 6,700 (perhaps mindful of Judge Ellis’ extremely skeptical assessment of the firm’s billing records).  It nevertheless said it was entitled to twice or three times its lodestar billings because of the contingency fee risk of its engagement with Alpha and the $26 million judgment it won.

The judge held his line.  He declined to apply a multiplier, in part because he said Gilbert had not reported fees he considered excessive in its engagement letter with Alpha.  The judge once again slashed Gilbert’s rates and hours and calculated the same award as in his previous ruling: just $1.2 million.

That was an abuse of his discretion, 4th Circuit Judges Roger Gregory, Allyson Duncan and Henry Floyd held in an unpublished opinion by Judge Gregory, the circuit’s chief judge.  “The district court focused on the engagement letter when it should have concentrated its efforts on determining the reasonable value of Gilbert’s services given the contingent nature of the representation,” the 4th Circuit said.  “The lodestar fee the district court awarded is inappropriate under the circumstances of this case and inadequately explained.”

The 4th Circuit said contingency fee lawyers, under Virginia precedent, are entitled to consideration for betting on a successful result.  “We cannot ignore the amount of work that Gilbert did without any guarantee of recovery, and the district court’s sharp reduction of Gilbert’s rates simply did not reflect that risk,” the court said.  “The facts in this case justify awarding Gilbert’s customary rates without reduction.”

Rather than send the case back to Judge Ellis for a third go-round, the 4th Circuit made its own calculations, crediting Gilbert with its reported 6,700 or so hours and an average hourly rate of about $460, for a total of about $3.1 million in fees.  (The firm has also been awarded about $1.7 million in costs.)

The opinion is unpublished and the circumstances of Gilbert’s dispute with Alpha are unusual.  But it’s heartening to see an appellate court recognize that entrepreneurial lawyers who get good results deserve to be compensated for their enterprise.

Fee Request Reduced 90 Percent in VW Dealer Case

April 13, 2017

A recent Courthouse News story by Nicholas Iovino, “Judge Whacks 90% of Attorney Fees in VW Dealer Case,” reports that a federal judge cut more than $25 million from attorneys’ fees in a $1.2 billion settlement between Volkswagen and its U.S. dealerships.  U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer reduced the award to $2.9 million, finding a request for $28.5 million too high, given that “much of the groundwork for the settlement was laid in negotiations” for a previous deal.

Breyer lopped off $1.5 million in billable hours deemed as “hybrid time,” or hours spent negotiating both the dealership settlement and a larger, $10 billion deal for owners of 2.0-liter diesel engine vehicles.  He found that attorneys already had been compensated for those hybrid hours in a $175 million fee award approved in March.

The $2.9 million fees award is the latest Volkswagen must pay to make amends for its installation of emissions-cheating software in 11 million vehicles worldwide, including nearly 600,000 diesel-powered vehicles sold in the United States.  The defeat device software kicked in to hide emissions during tests, while allowing cars to spew up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide on the road than allowed under federal law.

Under the $1.2 billion deal approved in January, 644 U.S. dealerships will each receive an average $1.85 million to cover losses precipitated by the German automaker’s diesel-gate scandal.  Although the requested $28.5 million makes up a mere 2.8 percent of the $1.2 billion deal, granting it would allow the lawyers to pocket more than 14 times the value of hours they actually worked, Breyer wrote.

“Dealer class counsel did not expend significant additional time procuring the settlement, nor did it undertake significant additional risk, given Volkswagen’s incentive to settle quickly,” Breyer wrote in the 10-page ruling.  He cut an additional $560,000 in anticipated billable hours, finding Volkswagen has already started paying dealerships and no further hours are needed to execute the deal.

Breyer recalculated the total value of billable hours at $1.47 million and applied a 2.0-multiplier, for a total of $2.95 million to be split between two law firms.  Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro will receive $2.3 million; Bass Sox & Mercer will get $622,000.  The judge also granted the firms $87,538 in litigation costs.

Five Fundamentals of Collecting Attorney Fees

April 3, 2017

A recent Daily Report article by Randy Evans and Shari Klevens, “5 Fundamentals of Collecting Fees,” addresses attorney fee collection.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

It pays to implement an effective billing system—literally.  On the front end, having a system in place increases realization rates because it gets money in the door.  On the back end, fee disputes and related malpractice claims can be minimized, if not avoided altogether.  Knowing the fundamentals of billing and collections can make the world of difference for any law practice from both a financial and risk management perspective.  Here are five steps worth considering when implementing or revising your billing and collections processes.

Determine Fee Arrangement Before Attorney-Client Relationship Begins

Subject to market conditions and the simple economics of supply and demand, lawyers typically enjoy the ability to negotiate fees with a prospective client.  The best way to minimize problems down the road is to finalize the negotiations before the attorney-client relationship commences.  In negotiating a fee arrangement, the most significant requirement under the ethical rules is that the fee must be reasonable.  In addition, fee agreements cannot penalize a client who decides to terminate an attorney at any time.  (Notably, requiring a client to pay an attorney for the time spent on the representation prior to termination is generally not an unreasonable term.)

If the fee arrangement is not finalized until after the representation begins, the attorney and client may already be in a fiduciary relationship at that point.  Attorneys have to take care not to use information learned in the course of the attorney-client relationship to the attorney's advantage and to the client's detriment in negotiating the fee.  If a client challenges the fee later, courts and bars will look to whether the attorney took advantage of the client's need for continued representation.

That is not to say that mid-representation fee changes are impermissible.  In fact, they happen frequently, such as when an attorney's hourly rate changes due to market conditions.  This is fairly routine.  For a major fee change mid-representation, however, the attorney could recommend that the client consult with independent legal counsel regarding the amended fee arrangement.  Attorneys who advise clients on new fee arrangements during the representation that seriously alter the previous terms may be subject to heightened scrutiny.

Set Expectations

If the attorney or law practice expects to get paid on a monthly or quarterly basis, that is something that can be discussed with the client at the outset of the representation.  Similarly, if the fees are expected to be paid directly from settlement proceeds or at closing, tell the client.

Avoiding surprises is the most important risk prevention technique.  When both attorney and client have set their respective expectations (and adjusted them as appropriate), then the attorney-client relationship begins and proceeds on the same page.

Memorialize the Fee Arrangement

There has been considerable commentary regarding the implications of a "fee agreement," particularly whether written agreements extend the statute of limitations for legal malpractice claims.  However, the risks of failing to document a fee arrangement far exceed the risks of an extended statute of limitations.

A great majority of fee disputes involve the amount of the fee itself.  The simplest and most effective method for avoiding this type of dispute is simply to agree in writing to the terms of the fee arrangement and to have the client sign the document confirming the fee arrangement.

Bill Regularly

Sending out bills on a regular basis helps show the client—in close to real time—what tasks are being completed and what charges are being incurred.  Then, if the client objects to the services or has a problem with the charges, such issues can be addressed quickly.  If the attorney is not sending bills on a regular basis, however, the client may later object to the fees (even if the client would have paid the same aggregate amounts if invoiced at regular intervals).

Most attorneys will recommend informing the client what the fees are or will be well in advance of the request for payment.  For the hourly fee attorney, this means sending out bills regularly so that the client gets a sense of what the fees and costs are.  What constitutes "regular" billing will obviously differ based on the circumstances of each representation.

If there is little activity while a motion or appeal is pending, then bills might not be sent for a few months.  On the other hand, if there is significant activity, then bills might be sent on a monthly basis.

For transactional representations, providing a pre-closing preview of the closing statement with the fees is helpful.  For contingency fees, pre-settlement previews of the amount of the fees is appropriate.  If the representation involves significant out-of-pocket expenses for which the client is responsible, consider interim bills.  The key is to make sure the client understands (and accepts) what the projected fees are before they are locked in by a closing or settlement to avoid a fee dispute.

Timely Address Unpaid Bills

Unpaid bills are problems waiting to happen.  The sooner those problems are identified and resolved, the better.  While many attorneys do a good job at documenting the fee and sending the bills, they may do a poor job on the follow-up.  Rather than leave the follow-up to chance, the better approach is to set an internal deadline for following-up on outstanding bills.  This contact enables the attorney to determine if the client has any issues with the bill or whether the failure to pay is a simple oversight or intended delay.

If there are concerns or issues about the bills, then the attorney should address them.  If nonpayment is an oversight, then the contact will serve as a friendly reminder.  If it is intended delay, then the attorney and client can discuss what the limitations are and how they might be addressed.

There is no magic time for following up.  Instead, it will depend on the contours of the relationship with the client.

For attorneys and law practices that follow the steps discussed above, fee collections can be a little less daunting.  For attorneys and law practices who do not, it is never too late to put the systems in place or revise existing ones.  Your balance sheet and law license will thank you.

Randolph Evans is a partner at Dentons US in Atlanta.  He handles complex litigation matters in state and federal courts for large companies and is a frequent lecturer and author on the subjects of insurance, professional liability and ethics.  Shari L. Klevens is a partner and deputy general counsel at Dentons US in Washington and Atlanta.  She is co-chair of the global insurance sector team, a member of the firm's leadership team and is active in its women's initiative.

Judge Highlights Excessive Billing in Sprint Litigation

March 15, 2017

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Joe Palazzolo and Sara Randazzo, “One Lawyer, 6,905 Hours Leads to $1.5 Million Bill in Sprint Suit,” reports that, Alexander Silow, a contract lawyer for a Pennsylvania plaintiffs’ firm, clocked 6,905 hours of work on a shareholder lawsuit against former executives and directors of Sprint Corp. related to its 2005 merger with Nextel.  Averaging about 13 hours a day, Mr. Silow reviewed 48,443 documents and alone accounted for $1.5 million, more than a quarter of the requested legal fees, according to court documents.

“Unbelievable!” is how Judge James Vano in Kansas described the billing records.  And he meant it.  “It seems that the vast amount of work performed on this case was illusory, perhaps done for the purpose of inflating billable hours,” Judge Vano, who sits in Olathe, Kan., wrote in a Nov. 22 opinion.

Courts often slash what they see as excessive billing in securities and other litigation, but rarely are they so scathing, legal experts said.  Judge Vano’s ruling might have gone unnoticed but for a recent disclosure about Mr. Silow by the law firm where he worked: He was disbarred in 1987 and practiced law illegally for decades.

The revelation, contained in a February letter to Judge Vano, could ​rupture​ a settlement in the Sprint case, and provide grist for corporate groups and others that have highlighted alleged abuses in the civil-justice system, fueling current momentum for legislative change.

A Republican bill passed by the House of Representatives would make it harder to file class actions, curtailing lawyer-driven litigation that provides little benefit to shareholders and consumers, its supporters say.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers and consumer-rights advocates say the legislation would reduce access to the courts and blunt litigation that has improved corporate governance and forced companies to pull unsafe drugs and faulty products from shelves.

Courts regularly bless multimillion-dollar fee awards in recognition of the risk plaintiffs’ firms take by fronting the costs for litigation.  But fee experts said bill-padding is pervasive in class actions and shareholder suits because billing records aren’t reviewed by clients and are scrutinized only when a judge needs to approve a settlement or award fees after trial.

William G. Ross, a law professor at Samford University in Alabama who has written two books on attorney billing, said his most recent survey of lawyers showed that two-thirds were personally aware of bill-padding and more than half admitted they sometimes performed work they otherwise wouldn’t have done had they been charging a flat fee.

Mr. Silow had been working as a contract attorney for at least eight years when staffing agency Abelson Legal Search placed him at the Weiser Law Firm PC in Berwyn, Pa., in 2008, according to a Feb. 3 letter from the firm to Judge Vano.  The law firm was contacted last month by a third party it declined to name and learned that no one with Mr. Silow’s name was listed in a state database of licensed lawyers, Robert B. Weiser, co-founder of the firm, said in the letter.

Mr. Weiser said Mr. Silow presented himself to the firm as Alexander J. Silow, but “was in actuality named Jeffrey M. Silow” and confessed he had been disbarred when the firm confronted him, the letter said.  The firm has since ended its relationship with Mr. Silow and alerted authorities, it said.

Pennsylvania’s attorney discipline office confirmed Mr. Silow was disbarred in 1987 but could provide no additional information.  Mr. Silow didn’t respond to emails and calls seeking comment.  Abelson Legal Search didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Weiser said in the letter that his firm stands by the accuracy of Mr. Silow’s billing records in the Sprint lawsuit, which alleged the company directors and officers concealed problems created by the merger with Nextel.  The company posted a nearly $30 billion loss as a result of the deal.

The lawsuit sought to claw back profits from former Sprint directors and officers, who it accused of incompetence and self-dealing.  But a settlement reached last year was more modest.  Sprint agreed to changes to its corporate governance and the composition of its board of directors.

Judge Vano approved the deal in his November ruling but slashed the proposed legal fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys from $4.25 million to $450,000.  “The focus appears to have been upon an easy, cheap settlement in the first instance,” Judge Vano wrote.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers—Mr. Weiser’s firm, Florida lawyers Alison Leffew and Bruce G. Murphy and the Kansas City firm Dollar Burns & Becker LC—have appealed Judge Vano’s ruling on the fees.  They argued the results of the settlement, rather than the hours billed, justified the amount sought.

In court documents, Mr. Weiser and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers representing a Sprint shareholder said Mr. Silow’s “extensive document review” enabled them to make “well-informed decisions.”

Michael Hartleib, a Sprint shareholder who objected to the settlement, asked the Kansas appeals court last month to return the case to Judge Vano’s court so he can reconsider the deal in light of the new evidence showing Mr. Silow had no license to practice law.