Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes

The NALFA

News Blog

Category: Legal Bills / Legal Costs

NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program Achieves 86% Success Rate

July 19, 2017

NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program is the nation’s only program devoted exclusively to resolving attorney-client fee disputes.  NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program recently reached an achievement:  Since the program began, NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program has achieved an 86% success rate—parties who mediate in a session are resolved six out of every seven times.  This rate is significantly higher than most bar-administered fee dispute programs.  NALFA has settled over $5 million in disputed attorney fees between parties in over 40 cases.  The cases were brought by corporate clients and law firms ranging from fee disputes of $32,000 to $975,000 from across the U.S.  One fee dispute case was from the UK.

Attorney fee disputes are the result of a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.  This breakdown may be a misunderstanding in the fee agreement or confusion over the law firm billing records.  Whatever the cause, mediation is the quickest, simplest, and most cost-effective way to resolve these attorney fee disputes.  NALFA fee dispute program is a private mediation service specifically designed to resolve attorney fee disputes of all types and sizes.

NALFA's fee dispute mediators are uniquely qualified to resolve fee disputes between parties in a cost effective and confidential manner.  These fee dispute mediators are trained neutrals who understand the underlying issues in fee and billing dispute matters.  Our fee dispute mediators are highly knowledgeable on reasonable attorney fees and proper legal billing practices.  They understand the array of issues in fee dispute cases such as fee agreements, hourly rates, billing practices and attorney fee ethics.

Unburden by bar association rules, NALFA provides parties with a mediation process that is flexibility, responsive and cost-effective.  Parties control when and where the mediation will occur, who will serve as the mediator, and whether they will accept a settlement offer.  Unlike most bar-administered programs, NALFA stays with the fee dispute case as long as necessary to bring it to a resolution.

"Our 86% success rate belongs to the outstanding work of our members, some of the nation's top rated fee dispute mediators," said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  "Their understanding of fee issues and their mediation skills are the reason we're celebrating this achievement," Jesse concluded.

Former Enron Unit Failed to Justify Fee Request

June 29, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Natalie Olivo, “Nigeria Knocks Ex-Enron Unit’s Fee Bid in $21M Award Row,” reports that a former Enron subsidiary has failed to justify its request for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for the solo practitioner who netted the company confirmation of a contract breach arbitral win against the Nigerian government now topping $21 million, the country told a D.C. federal court.

In pushing for the fees this month, Enron Nigeria Power Holding Ltd. — sold off by Enron in the wake of its 2001 scandal and collapse — said the $276,752.64 in attorneys’ fees and $4,025.69 in costs was well-earned by Texas attorney Kenneth R. Barrett, who overcame stiff opposition from experienced opposing counsel who put up a complex legal defense.  Legal fees are appropriate, ENPH said, in part because Nigeria refused to abide by the underlying award and because the underlying agreement requires compensation by “the party resisting enforcement.”

But the Nigerian government pushed back, arguing that instead of using the Washington, D.C., rate to calculate his fees, Barrett should have used the lower rate of Houston, Texas, because that was mainly where he worked.  In addition, the government said, while Barrett has nearly three decades of legal experience, he has not provided any evidence to show that he has experience regarding international arbitration award disputes with foreign governments.

“The fact that plaintiffs’ counsel has been licensed as an attorney for almost 30 years, does not necessarily translate to 30 years [of] experience in every area of law,” Nigeria said.  “Plaintiffs’ counsel has not shown that he has the requisite experience and reputation in international arbitration enforcement to justify the billing rate and hours spent on this matter.”

ENPH’s total award was up to more than $21.2 million after a D.C. federal judge added on exchange rate fluctuations and interest in April.  The International Chamber of Commerce arbitration award of $11 million plus fees had already been confirmed, and in December the D.C. Circuit also rejected Nigeria’s appeal of that ruling.

Nigeria had argued that it could cancel its deal with ENPH because of then-parent company Enron Corp.’s accounting scandal, and said enforcing the award would endorse fraudulent conduct and conflict with U.S. public policy, despite ENPH rebuttals that Nigeria failed to provide any evidence of wrongdoing on the subsidiary's part.

But the D.C. Circuit noted the courts’ tendency to defer to arbitration.  It also found that while the public policy issue of award enforcement was a question for the courts, interpreting the agreement between Nigeria and ENPH was a question for the ICC.  The panel also remarked that Nigeria began trying to back out of the deal in 1999 out of apparent economic convenience — before the Enron scandal broke.  As of the April judgment Nigeria still had not paid any of the award to ENPH.

ENPH in March asked the court for the $18.7 million in award and award interest as well as for exchange rate consideration and post-award/prejudgment interest on legal fees and arbitration costs.  The final judgment confirmed the $18.7 million and added $1.1 million based on ENPH arbitration legal fees and costs — converted from pounds at the November 2012 rate — along with $870,000 for ICC fees and $529,000 in prejudgment interest.

ENPH followed up with the court this month, noting that due to an “oversight,” prejudgment interest should actually be about $33,000 more.  The company first sought compensation for its legal costs late last month, asking for more than $630,000 total when combining its U.S. and United Kingdom court enforcement efforts.

In a June 3 brief, ENPH argued the rates charged by Barrett are reasonable, with the attorney having performed work both as lawyer and legal assistant.  For the attorney work, Barrett charged between $770 and $820 an hour, while he charged between $175 and $185 an hour for legal assistant efforts, for a total of 413.57 hours in all.

Hitting back against ENPH’s fee request, the Nigerian government said Barrett should actually be using the average Houston rate for comparable attorneys of about $300 an hour for attorney work and about $127 per hour for legal assistance efforts.  During the four years of the dispute, ENPH’s counsel made only two trips to Washington, D.C., the government said, one for mediation and the other for oral arguments before the circuit court.

The government also argued Barrett’s fee request should be reduced due to its documentation.  “The plaintiffs’ counsel in the matter has presented invoices rife with serial or blocked bill entries that impermissibly intermix time spent on multiple activities,” Nigeria said.  “It renders the task of determining how much time plaintiffs’ counsel reasonably spent on particular activities difficult.”

The case is Enron Nigeria Power Holding Ltd. v. Federal Republic of Nigeria, case number 1:13-cv-01106, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

New Algorithm for Attorney Fees in Real Estate Law

June 13, 2017

A recent Daily Business Review by Samantha Joseph, “Client Balking at Attorney Fees? K&L Gates Has an Algorithm for It” reports on a new algorithm for attorney fees in real estate law.  The article reads:

It won’t work for less predictable practice areas, but real estate lawyers at K&L Gates have an unconventional model for billing: An algorithm that prices each element of a deal to avoid sticker shock in a slowing market.

Critics say up-front pricing is risky in a sector where tough negotiations, permit hurdles, municipal demands and unexpected barriers to complex deals could leave the firm on the losing end of such arrangements.  But K&L’s goal is simple: Avoid situations where cost-conscious clients balk at their bill.

“A cautious client wants to tie down every cost to the extent that he possibly can,” K&L Gates commercial transactions and finance attorney Douglas Stanford said.  “Out-of-control fees became a problem.  A lot of these clients are now asking for very firm fee caps or fixed-fee proposals in writing.  And we are obliging.”

The firm’s detailed worksheet includes hundreds of fields, specifying fees for joint ventures, portfolios, due diligence, title and survey work, leasing and building management, documents for buying and selling real estate, loan documentation and specialized tasks such as U.S. income tax analysis and structuring for foreign clients.  It then identifies which professionals will handle each portion of the deal and subdivides the categories to spell out each task involved, provide a blended hourly rate per task, targeted hourly rate, potential high rate, estimated fee and potential maximum.

Obviously, it emphasizes detail.  For instance, the fee proposal for a customer seeking title and survey work includes 15 line items including title commitment, high-liability approval, boundary surveys, flood certification, municipal lien and assessment report, Uniform Commercial Code search, pro forma title insurance policy, insured-closing services, proof of satisfaction of mortgage, termination of Uniform Commercial Code financing statements, title affidavits, and title insurance policies for owners and mortgagees.

“We’re not cutting fees.  We are trying to make a better business of accurately estimating what our fees will be.  With our experience we know what certain kinds of deals will cost.  We have a system where we study the deal, identify what kinds of issues will arise and then price those issues,” Stanford said.  “In the same way you might find a health insurance company trying to price to the cost of a broken leg, we price each part of a real estate deal.”

The strategy has worked for K&L Gates, which strengthened its reputation as a major real estate practice by guiding Naples-based FTE Networks Inc.’s $75 million acquisition this year of construction management firm Benchmark Builders Inc.  But as the real estate cycles slips past its peak, attorneys say clients grow increasingly cautious.

“Even given the complexity, you know what it’s going to take and can come up with at least a price range,” Stanford said.  “We take a risk that the number is going to stay right there, and we stick with it.  We don’t go back later on and re-trade or renegotiate a deal already agreed to.”  The problem, though, is that real estate deals are hard to handicap, observers say.

“Until you end up going into the weeds … you don’t really know what’s going on on the other side,” Stroock & Stroock & Lavan real estate practice group partner Ira K. Teicher said.  “You never really know going in where you’ll find problems.”

Teicher found such problems on a recent deal with 80 exceptions to title for a property at the center of what initially promised to be a simple transaction.  He typically expects seven to 15 exceptions to title on average commercial properties — including utility easements, restrictive covenants and mortgages — which might be addressed to facilitate real estate trades.  But finding dozens forced Stroock to ramp up the time its attorneys and staff needed to devote to the deal.

“You can always estimate the norm, but once you’re outside the norm … it opens up Pandora’s box,” Teicher said.  K&L Gates’ algorithm is not the first time a real estate practice has taken an innovative approach to billing.

In 2015, prominent foreclosure defense counsel Thomas Ice disrupted the status quo with an innovation on the delivery of legal services.  His Royal Palm Beach-based firm, Ice Legal, launched LegalYou, an online portal to offer free and low-cost legal services, including packages with per-minute prices.

“Just like any other kind of business, lawyers need to leverage technology, streamline operations and diversify their product offerings to bring prices back in line with the market,” Ice said at the time of the launch.

K&L Gates suggests the time is right for its algorithm when retailers with shrinking brick-and-mortar operations demand less real estate and the luxury condominium market cools.  “The (price) negotiations happen going in,” Stanford said.  “We agree on a real number going into a deal rather than arguing about it on the end.”

IBM’s Watson Could Help Reduce Outside Counsel Spend

May 19, 2017

A recent the Corporate Counsel story by Jennifer Williams-Alvarez, “IBM Says New Watson Tool Could Dramatically Reduce Outside Counsel Spend,” reports that, a new tool using International Business Machines Corp.'s Watson, notorious for defeating its human competitors on "Jeopardy" in 2011, is hard at work for in-house legal departments with the goal of significantly reducing outside counsel spend.

So far, use of "Outside Counsel Insights," or OCI, has been limited to legal departments in the financial services industry, according to Brian Kuhn, co-founder and leader of IBM Watson Legal.  But with the potential to save as much as 30 percent on annual outside counsel spend, it's no surprise that the tool has piqued the interest of some of the largest companies in that field.

The service relies on cloud-based cognitive computing system Watson to reveal billing insights to in-house legal departments, Kuhn said.  The development of OCI, which became an official offering late last quarter, stemmed from the perceived desire of legal departments to get their arms around this line item on the budget, he added.

"Outside counsel spend is really a significant concern for corporate general counsel," Kuhn said, noting that "on average, corporate law departments spend one-third to 50 percent of their annual budget on outside counsel."

To cut down on these costs, OCI looks at the amount of time a lawyer spends on a task and at line item descriptions in a budget, for instance, and creates a nearly complete automation of the invoice review process, Kuhn said.  The tool also shows how outside counsel are working, he added, which "tells you not just what lawyers did, but in a very granular way, the order in which they did things."

Together, these two features will help facilitate fixed-fee pricing, according to Kuhn, because legal departments will have a very detailed understanding of the work being done by outside counsel and can then dictate price.  What's more, Kuhn said, a future capability of OCI is to extract insights, such as how a judge ruled on certain motions and how specific lawyers perform on cross-examination, in order to "enforce appropriate legal strategy based on the outside counsel who've worked for you."

"There are other tools out there on the marketplace that offer just a pure analytics approach and they can only parse structured data," Kuhn said, explaining what makes Outside Counsel Insights unique.  "What Watson's good at is actually reading like a person, reading language ... and the ability to take narrative descriptions of legal tasks and time entries and understand what a lawyer actually intends by that in the context of a company's billing guidelines, is really how we move the needle and how we use AI.”

While OCI is currently only used in legal departments in the financial services industry, the potential savings are far from insignificant, Kuhn said.  He pointed out that in just the one industry, IBM's analysis shows that the service can provide a 22 to 30 percent savings on annual outside counsel spend after two years.  In one company with over $1 billion on annual outside counsel spend, which IBM declined to identify as the financial services company does not give its name as a reference, Kuhn said the benefits case showed close to $400 million a year in savings after two years.

There are also plans to expand use of the tool in the future to other industries that rely heavily on outside counsel, according to Kuhn.  "This is definitely not a sexy use of Watson," he noted.  "It's about creating efficiency for the lawyers and it's about massively reducing outside counsel spend."

Over $5M in Disputed Legal Fees Resolved in NALFA’s Mediation Program

May 1, 2017

NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program is the nation’s only program devoted exclusively to resolving attorney-client fee disputes.  NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program reached a milestone recently: Over $5 million in disputed legal fees resolved between parties.  Since its inception, NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program has settled over $5 million in disputed attorney fees and expenses between parties in over 35 cases.  The over 35 cases were brought by both law firms and clients ranging from fee dispute matters of $37,000 to $975,000 from across the U.S.  One fee dispute case was from the UK.

Attorney fee disputes are the result of a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.  This breakdown may be a misunderstanding in the fee agreement or confusion over the law firm billing records.  Whatever the cause, mediation is the quickest, simplest, and most cost-effective way to resolve these attorney fee disputes.  NALFA offers a private mediation service specifically designed to resolve attorney fee disputes of all types and sizes.

NALFA's fee dispute mediators are uniquely qualified to resolve fee disputes between parties in a cost effective and confidential manner.  These fee dispute mediators are trained neutrals who understand the underlying issues in fee and billing dispute matters.  Their fee dispute mediators include former judges, seasoned litigators, and in-house counsel. 

NALFA's fee dispute mediators are highly knowledgeable on reasonable attorney fees and proper legal billing practices.  They understand the array of issues in fee dispute cases such as fee agreements, hourly rates, tasked performed, fee entitlement, attorney fee ethics, and fee award factors.  These mediators can often provide each side with an unbiased assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their case.  They can also discuss with the parties what might happen if the fee dispute does not settle. 

Since the program began, NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program has achieved a 86% success rate—parties who mediate in a session are resolved six out of every seven times.  This rate is significantly higher than most bar-administered fee dispute programs.

NALFA is dedicated to providing parties a mediation process that offers flexibility, a level playing field, and time and cost savings.  Parties control when and where the mediation will occur, who will serve as the mediator, and whether they will accept a settlement offer.  Unlike most bar-administered programs, NALFA stays with the fee dispute matter as long as necessary to bring it to a resolution.

"This achievement belongs to the outstanding work of our members, the nation's best fee dispute mediators," said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  "Their understanding of fee issues and their mediation skills are the reason we're celebrating this milestone," Jesse concluded.

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...

Read Full Post