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Category: Legal Bills / Legal 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.

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.

What are Best Practice in Outside 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 Outside 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 Outside Legal Fee Analysis.

Judge Wants Review of Legal Bills After Inadvertent Billing Practices

February 11, 2017

A recent ABA Journal story by Debra Cassens Weiss, “Judge Wants Review of Legal Bills After Firm Reveal 9,000 Hours of ‘Inadvertent’ Double-Billed Time” reports that a federal judge in Boston is proposing the appointment of a special fee master to review the accuracy of legal bills submitted by several prominent law firms—and is suggesting the firms pay the costs of the probe.

U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf proposed in the Feb. 6 memorandum and order that up to $2 million in special fee master costs be paid from nearly $75 million in attorney fees that had been awarded to plaintiffs’ counsel in their settled suit against State Street Bank, the Boston Globe reports.  The class action had contended the bank overcharged its customers in connection with certain foreign exchange transactions.

Wolf cited a report by the Boston Globe Spotlight team that found three law firms submitted some charges for the same lawyers, often with differing hourly rates.  Some of the hourly rates listed in the legal filings were as much as 10 times more than what the lawyers generally earned, according to the newspaper’s report.

One of the firms, the Thornton Law Firm of Boston, submitted bills showing an hourly rate of $425 for staff attorneys, but one of those lawyers told the Boston Globe he was paid only $30 an hour for his work.  The Thornton firm was recently in the news as a result of a Boston Globe report that claimed partners at the firm who made Democratic campaign donations were reimbursed with law firm bonuses.

Wolf proposes that recently retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen of Michigan be appointed as special fee master to review the accuracy and reliability of representations made in the legal bills, to report on whether misconduct occurred, and if so, to recommend whether the misconduct should be sanctioned.

Nine law firms shared in the legal fees.  Besides Thornton they included class-action law firms Labaton Sucharow, the lead law firm in the State Street case, and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.  According to the Globe, Thornton has a “lucrative partnership with Labaton Sucharow in which Thornton often finds potential legal clients for the much bigger New York firm.”

After Globe reporters contacted Labaton Sucharow for its story on the legal fees, the law firm submitted a letter to Wolf acknowledging “inadvertent errors” in written billing submissions.  Seventeen staff lawyers in Thornton’s report were also listed as staff attorneys on Labaton’s report, the letter said.  And six of the staff attorneys in Thornton’s report were also listed as staff attorneys on the report by Lieff Cabraser.

In all, the firms overbilled by about $4 million and double counted about 9,000 hours, the letter revealed.  The duplicative time has been removed, the letter said, and when differing billing rates were listed for a given staff attorney, the time will be claimed at the lower rate.