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Category: Hourly Rates / Hourly Billing

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.

Report: Wells Fargo Was Too Focused on Legal Spend

April 12, 2017

A recent Bloomberg Big Law Business story by Gabe Friedman, “Wells Fargo Lawyers Were Too Cost Focused, Report Says,” reports on the recent abusive sales practices of Wells Fargo.  The story reads:

After taking six months to investigate how Wells Fargo became enveloped in an abusive sales scandal, Shearman & Sterling has produced a 113-page report (pdf) that lays into the legal department for missing the big picture and focusing too much on legal cost containment.  The report was commissioned by the board of directors, which in September retained Shearman to assist an oversight committee in examining the scandal, in which bank employees created an untold number of fraudulent bank accounts in customers’ names in order to meet their sales targets.

The team of Shearman lawyers interviewed 100 people, mostly in senior management, and reviewed 35 million documents, collected from 300 custodians with FTI Consulting providing data analytics assistance, according to a note within the 113-page report.  It assesses each department in the bank, from human resources to audit, for its contribution to the scandal.  Although the law department is far from alone in the blame, the Shearman team repeatedly knocked the department under former general counsel James Strother for failing to see a pattern and recognize the seriousness in a growing number of incidents beginning in 2011 related to improper sales practices.

Right up until September 2016, “there continued to be a lack of recognition within the Law Department (as in other parts of Wells Fargo) about the significance of the number of sales integrity terminations, and the potential reputational consequences associated with that number,” the report notes.  “The Law Department’s focus was principally on quantifiable monetary costs — damages, fines, penalties, restitution.”

It adds, “Confident those costs would be relatively modest, the Law Department did not appreciate that sales integrity issues reflected a systemic breakdown in Wells Fargo’s culture and values and an ongoing failure to correct the widespread breaches of trust in the misuse of customers’ personal data and financial information.”

Former general counsel Strother, who retired last month, also comes up for serious scrutiny in the report including that the board’s risk committee felt badly misled for a presentation he was involved in.  Most notably, according to the report, in May 2015, three weeks after the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo, accusing it of setting unrealistic sales goals that created pressure on employees to resort to opening fraudulent accounts, Strother and Carrie Tolstedt, head of community banking made a presentation to the board’s Risk Committee about the matter.

The Risk Committee specifically requested the number of employees that had been fired up to that point related to improper sales practices, which numbered around 2,600 at that point, the report states.  But this number was deleted from the presentation during a pre-conference call between members of the legal department and Tolstedt’s community banking department — for reasons no one could recall, according to Shearman.

Instead, the Risk Committee heard that only 230 employees had been fired and that “the root cause was intentional employee misconduct, not systemic issues,” according to the report. It was the first time that the committee even heard that there were as many as 230 terminations, and members “felt blindsided by the disclosure,” the report says. 

And in fact, the report notes, the actual number of people who had been fired or resigned as a result of investigations was closer to 2,600 at that time.  “Multiple Board members have stated that they felt misled by the presentation; they left with the understanding that sales integrity terminations were in the range of 200-300 and were largely localized in Southern California,” the report states.  “The Board was not provided with the correct aggregated termination data until well into 2016.”

While the report does credit some members of the law department with making “commendable attempts to address the sales abuses … through work on various committees,” it faults its members for not fully considering “whether there might be a pattern of illegal conduct” rather than a series of discrete legal problems.

Already, the report is being held up as a rare inside look at how a law department failed to mitigate a problem before it grew into a full scandal that resulted in major regulatory fines and executive management changes.  “This is the Wells Fargo Investigative Report.  It is well worth reading.  The next in the chronicles from Enron to GM,” Abercrombie & Fitch’s general counsel Robert Bostrom wrote on LinkedIn on Monday.

Amar Sarwal, vice president and chief legal strategist of the Association of Corporate Counsel, agreed that the report is likely to be studied by lawyers in the future.  “Normally you’re not going to have the confidential workings [of a law department] exposed like this,” Sarwal said.

The fact that it is written by a law firm, and critiques a corporate law department for focusing too much on cost containment and not seeing the big picture marks an “intriguing turnaround” from the normal roles, he added.  It is more common to hear corporate law departments critique law firms for being too focused on the billable hour and not spending enough time learning their client’s business.

The Shearman team was lead by New York partner Stuart Baskin, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan.  Baskin previously represented J.P. Morgan’s board of directors as it dealt with the London Whale scandal, which involved a trader who accumulated an outsized position in the credit default swap market and lost $6.2 billion, raising questions about the bank’s risk management system.

Sarwal said the report puts a spotlight on the fact that all corporate lawyers, both in house and at law firms, face a tension between advising their client on a specific matter, and advising them on how to run their business.  “There’s this idea that the lawyers are the conscience of the company, but they’re not,” he added.

Instead, they operate within the hierarchy of the company and have to work with other executives to identify and solve problems.  He criticized the report for not contextualizing what else the law department had on its plate as the sales abuse problem unfolded, but nonetheless praised it as useful information.  “For GCs, this report is just another reminder that your job involves trying to change a real culture of human beings,” said Sarwal.

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.

NALFA Hosts CLE Program with Sitting Federal Judges

March 24, 2017

Today, NALFA hosted the CLE program “View From the Bench: Awarding Attorney Fees in Federal Litigation”.  This program featured a panel of sitting federal judges.  This is the third CLE program NALFA has hosted with an all-judicial panel of sitting federal judges. 

The U.S. District Court Judges, the Honorable Frederic Block, Senior Judge from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York and the Honorable David R. Herndon, District Judge from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, discussed a range of attorney fee and legal billing issues in federal litigation.  The panel addressed fee shifting cases, prevailing party issues, and fee calculation methods. The panel also took questions from the audience.

This live and remote CLE program was approved for CLE credit hours in California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas.  CLE credit hours are still pending in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Over 75 attorneys from across the U.S. registered for this multi-state CLE program.  This 120-minute CLE program was recorded and is available for purchase on-demand.

Federal Circuit: EAJA Fee Awards Must Use Local Rates

March 16, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Chuck Stanley, “Fed. Circuit Says EAJA Legal Fees Must Use Local Costs,” reports that awards for attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) must be calculated based on the location where the work was done, a Federal Circuit panel said in a precedential ruling.

The federal circuit rejected a veteran’s widow’s claim that ambiguity in the statute allows her to adjust upward the hourly rate for calculating attorneys’ fees in a benefits suit based on the consumer price index (CPI) in Washington, D.C., where the case was heard but little other work was done.

Instead, the panel ruled that Paula Parrott should have provided individual rates for work done in Dallas, San Francisco and Washington in order to win an adjustment from the statutory rate of $125 per hour, rather than using the CPI for a single city or the national CPI to calculate a single rate.

The decision upheld the Veterans Court’s decision to award Parrott fees based on the statutory rate because she failed to provide rates for each city where work had been done on the case.

“We think the local CPI approach, where a local CPI is available … is more consistent with EAJA than the national approach.  We therefore hold that the Veterans Court did not err in ruling that the local CPI approach represented the correct method of calculating the adjustment in Ms. Parrott’s attorney’s hourly rate,” the decision states.

Parrott had claimed more than $7,200 in legal expenses in a suit over benefits for her husband, a deceased veteran, based on an upward adjustment from the statutory hourly rate based on the cost of living in Washington, D.C.  Language in the EAJA, which provides for an award of attorneys’ fees to victorious parties fighting agency action, stipulates that a $125 cap on hourly rates can be adjusted upward due to an increase in the cost of living.

But Parrott argued the statute is ambiguous regarding the method used to calculate such an increase.  She further claimed the Veterans Court was obliged to accept her cost estimate because ambiguity in a statute related to veterans benefits must be construed in favor of the veteran.

However, the panel ruled the EAJA is not ambiguous because using the national CPI rather than local numbers would incentivize more attorneys to accept cases challenging government agencies in low-cost areas rather than pricier areas.  Further, the panel found Parrott’s claim the Veterans Court was required to side with her is not applicable to the EAJA since it is not a veterans benefit statute, but applies to all litigants against executive agencies.

The case is Parrott v. Shulkin, case number 2016-1450, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.