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Category: Defense Fees / Costs

When Someone Else Pays the Legal Bills

March 7, 2017

A recent CEBblog article by Julie Brook, “When Someone Else Is Paying Your Fees,” writes about when a third party pays some of all of your legal fees in California.  This article was posted with permission. The article reads:

When, in a noncontingent matter, a third party is paying all or some of the attorney fees for your client, do you know how to deal with the issues that can arise?  Short answer: Address them upfront in your fee agreement.  Here are sample provisions to get you started.

You should be aware that Cal Rules of Prof Cond 3-310(F) requires informed written consent of your client when someone else is paying for his or her attorney fees.  In explaining this requirement to your client, advise him or her of the potential problems that might arise with this arrangement.

Here are two alternative sample provisions you can use in your fee agreement, depending on whether the third person will be a party to the agreement:

[Alternative 1: If the person/entity responsible for payment of fees and costs isn’t a party to the fee agreement]

Another person or entity may agree to pay some or all of Client’s attorney fees and costs.  Any such agreement will not affect Client’s obligation to pay attorney fees and costs under this agreement, nor will Attorney be obligated under this agreement to enforce such agreement.  Any such amounts actually received by Attorney, however, will be credited against the attorney fees set out in this agreement [or delivered to Client if there is no balance due Attorney].  The issue raised by having a third party pay the fees is the potential or perceived potential that the third party may try to influence the prosecution of the case to minimize costs or to achieve other goals.  However, the fact that another [person/entity] may agree to pay some or all of Client’s attorney fees will not make that [person/entity] a client of Attorney and that [person/entity] will have no right to instruct Attorney in matters pertaining to the services Attorney renders to Client.  Unless Client gives written permission to discuss all or a portion of Client’s matters with [the person/the entity] paying all or a portion of the attorney fees, Attorney will not disclose any confidential information to [him/her/it].  By signing this agreement, Client consents to this arrangement and acknowledges that Attorney has advised Client of the advantages and disadvantages of this arrangement.

[Alternative 2: If the person/entity responsible for payment of fees and costs will be a party to the fee agreement]

[Name] agrees to pay attorney fees for services performed and costs incurred in the representation of Client under this agreement.  [Name] acknowledges that [his/her/its] agreement to pay attorney fees and costs does not make [him/her/it] a client of Attorney.  Unless Client gives written permission to discuss all or a portion of Client’s matters with [name], Attorney will not disclose any confidential information to [him/her/it].

Alternative 1 avoids potential ethical issues posed by such arrangements by making it clear that the party paying the bills isn’t the client and isn’t party to the confidential attorney-client relationship.

But if you want a remedy against the third party if he or she stops paying, you must have an agreement with that individual or entity.  One way to do that, illustrated in Alternative 2, is to make the payor a party to the fee agreement.  It’s best, however, to have a separate written agreement with the payor rather than having him or her sign the same engagement letter as the client; this will preserve the attorney-client privilege of the fee agreement with the client.

Also, consider doing the following when a third party is paying the bills:

  • Give notice of fee dispute arbitration.  Even though the party assuming responsibility for payment doesn’t become your client in the sense of directing the representation or becoming privy to confidential information, you should send notice of the right to compel arbitration of a fee dispute to this individual or entity as well as to the client. Wager v Mirzayance (1998) 67 CA4th 1187.
  • Refund advanced fees at end of case.  To the extent funds advanced by a third party remain after the case is concluded, you should refund the balance to the payor, not the client.  See California State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2013-187.

NALFA Quoted in ALM’s Daily Business Review

March 1, 2017

NALFA was quoted in the ALM’s Daily Business Review (DBR), the leading source of daily legal and business news in South Florida, in a news story by Monika Gonzalez Mesa, “Are Florida Billing Rates on the Rise? It Depends”.  The story reads:

At least six large Florida-based law firms raised their billing rates in 2016 and plan to do so again this year.  But the higher rates may not be typical for Florida firms across the board.

In a survey conducted by ALM, Akerman, Greenspoon Marder, Holland & Knight and Shutts & Bowen all projected that they will raise hourly billing rates by more than 3 percent in 2017, as they did in 2016.  Greenberg Traurig also said it raised billing rates by more than 3 percent in 2016 but expects the percentage increase to be lower this year.  And Carlton Fields reported that it, too, raised its billing rates in 2016, although the increase was not as high.  It says it plans to raise them again this year.

But many variables go into determining billing rates, and the upswing does not necessarily represent an overall trend for Florida law firms, lawyers say.  Billing rates vary widely with location, market competition, complexity of practice, demand for that practice and the individual lawyer's experience.  Firms strive to find the rate that covers overhead without turning off clients while still keeping the firm attractive to valuable existing talent and potential recruits.

"It's hard to get a general consensus on billing rates because they tend to be geography focused and practice driven," said Terry Jesse, executive director of the National Association of Legal Fee Analysis, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

Bankruptcy court records, however, can provide a snapshot of billing rates because attorneys are often required to list their rates when representing clients in bankruptcy.  ALM Legal Intelligence collected 2016's hourly billing rates for partners, associates, of counsel and paralegals from these published rates in the 20 largest federal bankruptcy jurisdictions.  The Daily Business Review compiled a Florida list based on this data, offering a view of billing rates in the state.

The largest group of Florida attorneys in the list reported rates in the $200 to $350 an hour range.  The next biggest block provided rates that ranged between $350 and $500 an hour.  A smaller but still significant tier billed $500 or more per hour.

Among the highest paid attorneys were Greenberg Traurig partner Paul Keenan, who billed $765 an hour, Paul Singerman, co-chairman of Berger Singerman, who reported a rate of $695 an hour, and Robert Furr, founding partner of FurrCohen, who listed his rate at $650 an hour.

"I know guys that charge even more than that—a lot more," said I. Mark Rubin, an attorney in Jacksonville, who was included in the top-tier of the list with a billing rate of $575.  "Our clients are willing to pay for our services because they can't get the type of representation we give anywhere else."

Rubin represents groups of small investors who were caught up in aggregated-investor building-purchase schemes in the early 2000s.  Many of the deals involved fraud and left seniors without access to their life savings.  Rubin said he was included in the 2016 ranking because he used bankruptcy court to keep a 30-story building from falling into the hands of a predatory lender.

Bankruptcy billing rates, however, don't necessarily reflect billing rates for other practice areas, lawyers say.  Often, bankruptcy cases involve limited funds and limited recovery, so when deciding what to charge, lawyers have to consider that their compensation—especially in trustee and debtor cases—will also be limited.

"Bankruptcy traditionally has higher hourly rates, not only because of the complexity, but because of the risk that lawyers have to take on," said Luis Salazar, managing partner at Salazar Jackson in Coral Gables.

Bankruptcies make up about 25 percent of Salazar's practice now, but seven years ago, when the economy was doing poorly, it was perhaps as much as 50 percent, he said.  "For our market I don't think you're seeing much increase in bankruptcy billing rates because the demand is not there," he said.

Salazar is listed as charging an hourly rate of $500 in 2016.  Now, he says, his hourly billing rate has gone up to $550.  But much of his work, he says, is now based on a flat fee or alternative fee agreement.

Another reason billing rates in bankruptcy cases may not accurately reflect the rates attorneys charge in other practice areas is that bankruptcy attorneys are not as constrained by the power and weight of market competition.  In bankruptcy court, it is judges who approve the billing rates.

"The [bankruptcy] rates tend to be a little higher than they would be in the market because you have a judge looking over the rate as opposed to the competitive market," said Gary Mason, founding partner at Whitfield Bryson & Mason in Washington, D.C.

Bankruptcy billing rates do offer a window into legal fees.  But they are a very small part of the market overall, lawyers say, making it difficult to extrapolate rates throughout the industry from that data alone.

In fact, legal billing rates vary significantly and depend largely on the practice area and the complexity of a case, attorneys say.

"If it tends to be very complex work, the rates are going to be higher—and generally the larger firms do that [kind of work]," Mason said.  "But you'll usually find smaller boutique firms that have similar high rates because they have specialized expertise."

In South Florida, lawyers say the highest hourly rates are in specialty areas: complex cross-border, mergers and acquisitions, antitrust litigation, project finance, international taxation and international arbitration.

"The highest rates we see in Florida pretty much max out at around $850 locally, but you do have a small cadre of Miami-based partners working on national major market matters who charge New York rates—over $1,000 per hour," said Joe Ankus, president of the Florida-based legal recruiting firm Ankus Consulting.

Ankus says that firms tell him what they expect their lawyers' rates to be when they hire lateral partners.  "While $765 is definitely in the top five-to-ten percent of rates for all of the South Florida legal market, it is not considered high for an AmLaw Top 25 firm with an office in Florida," he said.  "It would be closer to middle-of-the-road, depending on the practice area."

At the global firm Holland & Knight, a market analysis and information gathering process begins a few months before the firm implements a rate change.

"We try to gather as much information and market data as possible," said Holland & Knight Operations and Finance partner Douglas Wright.  "We use market data compiled by large accounting firms and other consultants to analyze and evaluate our rates.  We spend a lot of time poring over the data."

The distilled information is then shared with practice leaders, who further discuss current market considerations and demand for each lawyer in determining a rate, he said.

"From all of that process, we develop a rate for each individual lawyer, which is an attempt, again, to balance market considerations, client considerations, and to make sure the firm is in a position to demonstrate the value proposition that it brings to our clients," Wright said.

According to Jesse of the National Association of Legal Fee Analysis, antitrust litigation is generally the most expensive litigation, and white-collar defense also has a high hourly rate.  Bankruptcy tends to be more straightforward, he said, but the more complex the litigation, the higher the hourly rate.

"The lowest rates out there tend to be insurance defense rates because the insurance companies will give them a book of business," Jesse said.  "There tends to be a difference in how plaintiffs attorneys bill and defense attorneys bill.  Defense work tends to be on hourly-based, while plaintiffs attorneys can bill on a contingency."

Last month, the rates law firms charge for their services grabbed the public's attention in Florida when the state revealed that four law firms had billed $97.8 million since 2001 for their work representing Florida in a battle with Georgia over water rights.  According to a spreadsheet obtained by the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, Latham & Watkins charged $395 an hour for lawyers with three years or less experience, $575 an hour for lawyers with between three and ten years of experience and $825 an hour for work performed by partners.  Foley & Lardner charged $220 an hour for associates with five years or less experience, and $450 an hour for partners.

While hourly billing rates are not likely to disappear any time soon, lawyers say that over the past few years, clients have become savvier at looking for predictability, efficiency and good value.  For longer projects, they want to know what alternatives they have.  Salazar said his firm embraced the change and created a system based on project management methods from other industries to zero in on what clients are looking for.

"Most of the work we're doing now is either project billing-based or flat fee-based or some sort of alternative fee," he said, "For bankruptcy, there's still an hourly fee approach, but for nonbankruptcy matters, including commercial litigation, transaction and the compliance work we do, clients are really seeking some alternative billing basis."

What are Best Practice in Legal Fee Analysis?

February 20, 2017

Legal fee analysis is the comprehensive review and analysis of attorney fees and costs in an outside legal matter.  Professionals who perform outside legal fee analysis include attorney fee experts, special fee masters, bankruptcy fee examiners, fee dispute mediators, and legal bill auditors.

The following best practices measures were developed over several years with input and consensus from thought leaders from across the legal fee analysis community.  These best practice measures promote values such as ethics, independence, and professional development.  These peer review driven standards help strengthen the legal fee analysis field by ensuring integrity in the process and and reliability in the results. 

This professional code of conduct is considered the professional mainstream of legal fee analysis.  All our members (i.e. fully qualified attorney fee experts, special fee masters, bankruptcy fee examiners, fee dispute mediators, and legal bill auditors) have pledged to follow Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis:

  1. Adhere to the proper standard of reasonableness.
  2. Observe a consistent and reliable methodology.
  3. Keep updated on the latest jurisprudence of reasonable attorney fees and expenses.
  4. Keep updated on the latest scholarship on reasonable attorney fees and expenses (i.e. empirical papers, studies, surveys, and reports).
  5. Participate in professional development and CLE programs on attorney fees and legal billing topics.
  6. Do not advertise false or intentionally misleading information or offer any guarantee of outcome.
  7. Do not charge on a contingency basis (i.e. based on the results obtained).
  8. Do not accept a case or client where there is an inherent conflict of interest.
  9. Keep all fee, billing, and work product information in strict confidence.
  10. Utilize technology where possible.

Please note: You don't need to be a NALFA member to follow Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis.

Paper: Restraining Lawyers: From ‘Cases’ to ‘Tasks’

February 3, 2017

A forthcoming Fordham Law Review article, “Restraining Lawyers: From ‘Cases’ to ‘Tasks (pdf),’” by Morris A. Ratner, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, argues that law practice is experiencing two parallel shifts: civil procedure amendments are focusing on cost and resource drain, and the private market is giving in-house departments more options to unbundle legal work for lower costs.  A draft version of this article was posted with permission.  The abstract reads:

Developments in the domains of procedure and private contract highlight a continuing shift in authority away from lawyers and towards courts and clients accomplished by a conceptual downshift from “cases” to “tasks.”  The 2015 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure limit attorney and party discretion by further empowering the trial court judge to dissect, assess the value of, and sequence case activity, including discovery.  At the same time, in the private sphere, sophisticated clients aided by advances in project and information management are controlling legal spend by unbundling cases into tasks.  From that position, they can source projects to low-cost providers.  Clients are also increasingly demanding litigation budgets and seeking value-based pricing, both of which work best if there is heightened communication between lawyer and client regarding the means to be pursued to achieve litigation aims.  These regulatory and market restraints on lawyers and lawyer-driven adversarialism, while pointing in a similar direction, differ fundamentally in terms of their reach, efficacy, and fairness.  Despite their differences, these developments in tandem have the potential to inspire the creation of new norms and duties calling on litigators to think more deeply and inclusively about the value of litigation tasks from the perspective of court and client.

Legal Bills Not Fully Protected by Attorney-Client Privilege in California

January 12, 2017

A recent law.com story, “Decision on Attorney-Client Privilege Spooks Defense Bar,” reports that a closely divided California Supreme Court limited the protection afforded to legal bills under the attorney-client privilege when those bills are sent to government entities and sought under the state’s Public Records Act.

The court ruled 4-3 that a law firm’s invoices to a government agency are exempt from disclosure only when they pertain to active matters.  Just how a big a chink that cuts in the privilege for legal bills generated outside government representation isn’t immediately clear.

“That’s the $1 million question,” said Steven Fleischman, a partner at Horvitz & Levy.  “Are courts going to find this decision only applies to public records cases?  Or are they going to read it as saying attorney bills are no longer privileged once the case ends.  I certainly hope it’s the former.”

In a vigorous dissent, Justice Katheryn Werdegar scolded her colleagues for undermining a “pillar of our jurisprudence” by finding that legal bills aren’t universally shielded by attorney-client privilege and accused the majority of twisting California’s Evidence Code to “discover a heretofore hidden meaning.”  “The majority’s decision … is unsupported by law,” she wrote.

In a somewhat unlikely alliance, the court’s majority opinion was written by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and joined by Ming Chin, Goodwin Liu and Leondra Kruger. Cuellar, Liu and Kruger are the court’s three newest justices; all graduated from Yale Law School and were appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown.  Chin, generally seen as a conservative voice on the court, has held his seat for 20 years.  Werdeger’s dissent was joined by Carol Corrigan and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Cuéllar acknowledged that the disclosure of a law firm’s billing records in an active case may reveal clues about legal strategy but rejected a categorical protection.  To be privileged, he wrote, a communication must be made for the purpose of legal consultation.

“While invoices may convey some very general information about the process through which a client obtains legal advice, their purpose is to ensure proper payment for services rendered, not to seek or deliver that attorney’s legal advice or representation,” Cuéllar stated.

The ruling in Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors v. ACLU of Southern California reverses a decision by the Court of Appeal finding that invoices sent to the County of Los Angeles by law firms in connection with excessive force suits on behalf of jail inmates are exempt from disclosure.  All the matters have now been resolved.  Among the Southern California law firms that represented Los Angeles County were Hurrell Cantrall; Collinson Law; Collins Collins Muir and Stewart; and Lawrence Beach Allen and Choi.

“We’re pleased that the majority of the court adopted an interpretation that protects the public’s access to information documenting the large amount of money spent by government agencies on outside law firms,” Rochelle Wilcox of Davis Wright Tremaine, an attorney for the ACLU, said in a written statement.

The ACLU filed a petition in 2013 seeking invoices submitted to the county by outside firms based on its assertion that those firms engaged in a “scorched earth” litigation policy, dragging out cases even when a settlement was likely.

The ACLU’s petition was granted in 2014.  The Second District Court of Appeal reversed finding the proper inquiry should not consider whether a communication contained an attorney’s advice, but whether an attorney-client relationship exists and whether the communication was transmitted confidentially.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court’s majority took a middle path, distinguishing between invoices related to pending litigation and those related to closed matters.  The critical factor, Cuellar wrote, “is the link between the content of the communication and the types of communication that the attorney-client privilege was designed to keep confidential.”

The majority took pains to portray its reasoning as consistent with the court’s 2009 decision in Costco Wholesale Corp. v. Superior Court, which said that the retailer did not have to turn over any portion of an advice letter issued by its lawyer that contained both confidential and non-confidential information.

But Werdegar found the exercise unconvincing, saying the majority “strains to distinguish Costco, unconvincingly suggesting that when an attorney bills a client for legal services rendered, he or she steps outside the role of a lawyer and into the role of an accountant.”

Jennifer Henning, who submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities, said the decision’s basic holding that billing records are not subject to disclosure during pending litigation is largely what her group proposed.  “That’s really helpful because those billing records do reveal a litigation strategy, while private parties don’t have to do that,” she said.

However, Henning said the ruling is not entirely clear in its application to non-litigation circumstances and how the privilege status of a particular item changes over time.

Fleischman, who filed an amicus brief backing the county for the Association of Southern California Defense Counsel, said his group is happy with the core holding that legal bills are shielded from exposure during active litigation.  As for whether the decision will have impact outside public records requests, Fleischman said “I think we just have to wait and see how that plays out.”