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Category: Study / Report

Survey: Class Action Defense Rates Keep Pace with Plaintiffs’ Rates in 2020

March 4, 2020

Defense rates keep pace with plaintiffs’ rates in class action litigation at partner and associate levels in 2020.  That’s just one of the findings from a recent survey, The 2020 Class Action Hourly Rate Survey, conducted by the National Association of Legal Fee Analysis (NALFA).  This billing rate survey, conducted via email over a two month period, asked class action litigators from the nation’s 16 largest legal markets if their current regular hourly rate falls within a given range.

The NALFA survey shows that 95 percent of all class actions fall within the $200-$1,200 hourly rate range for both defense and plaintiffs’ counsel at partner and associate levels.  In short, only 5 percent of class action hourly rates are less than $200 and over $1,200.  Thus, nearly all class action hourly rates fall within a $1,000 hourly rate statistical variance.

This survey is the first in a series of hourly rate surveys that NALFA will be conducting in specific practice areas in 2020.  NALFA also conducts custom hourly rate surveys for clients such as law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.  NALFA surveys provide the most accurate and current hourly rate ranges within a given geography and practice area.

“This survey data may be the nation’s first and only quantitative class action hourly rate data of its kind,” said Terry Jesse, NALFA Executive Director.  With more class action hourly rate data to follow, here are some of the top-level findings from NALFA’s 2020 Class Action Hourly Rate Survey:

Technology Alone is Not the Answer to Outside Fee Guidelines

February 14, 2020

A recent American Lawyer story by Dan Packel, “‘Technology Alone Is Not the Answer’ Wilmer Revisits Outside Counsel Guidelines,” reports that the number of outside counsel guidelines that attorneys and administrators at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr have to juggle is striking.  In total, the firm is sitting on approximately 1,000 documents, after receiving, in 2019 alone, roughly 260 new retainer agreements or updates to existing guidelines that stipulate what clients expect from the attorneys they are hiring. 

Wilmer isn’t the only law firm dealing with heightened standards from corporate clients about what they’ll pay for and what they won’t.  A recent study from timekeeping technology company Bellefield and the Association of Legal Administrators estimated the cost of compliance with these guidelines at nearly $4 million annually for some firms.  “There are a lot of process failures out there,” said Kyle Liepelt, who was named Wilmer’s first dedicated outside counsel guidelines administrator in February 2018.  “Technology alone is not the answer.”

When Wilmer began the process of reevaluating how it dealt with these guidelines in 2017, leaders found that—unlike the majority of the firms responding to the Bellefield and ALA survey—it was over-complying with guidelines.  Instead of losing money through rejected bills, convoluted appeals and write-downs, attorneys were being overly cautious in their billing.

“We couldn’t arm our partners to the nuances of these client differences,” said Steve Smith, the firm’s director of matter management services, describing a problem of “excessive diligence.”  “That impact, both in time and money, to communicate the complexity around outside counsel guidelines, that’s time that we should have been spending adding real value to our clients,” he continued. 

Following an initial workshop, one of Wilmer’s first steps was to create the centralized administrator position held by Liepelt, who spent the previous five years as a conflicts specialist in the firm’s new business department.  Each set of new guidelines goes directly to him, and he’s responsible for reviewing their terms, looping in the relationship partner and the billing partners on a given matter.

Room For Negotiations

These conversations aren’t just to circulate the substance of what clients are demanding.  Wilmer is not afraid to push back on terms that the firm would prefer not to agree to.  Liepelt said that his conversations within the industry showed that’s not always the case elsewhere.  “A lot of firms often receive them and that’s it, there’s no real discussion about them.  They may post them, so people can see them, but there’s no discussion on substance,” he said. 

According to the Bellefield and ALA survey, 23% of firms make no effort to share guidelines with attorneys, while 24% simply post them on the firm’s intranet.  While 52% share guidelines via email, the survey did not capture whether this is the prelude to a wider discussion, let alone to a response to the client.  But Liepelt said that the reaction is generally positive. At the very least, clients appreciate that the firm is carefully considering the guidelines.

“When it comes to the recommendations that we give, it’s a mixed bag.  Some say, ‘This is what it is, and we want you to follow it,’” he said “Other times there’s a negotiation back and forth and we arrive somewhere in the middle.”  Liepelt will often handle these conversations with the client, particularly if the attorneys don’t want to get involved.  “Discussion can be a burden on attorneys,” he said.  “I try to relieve them of any potential conflict.”

Into The Database

If these conversations illustrate the human side of the process, the technical side takes the forefront once any negotiations are finished.  The Wilmer team looked to a database to help solve the problem of scale, teaming with a vendor that had its own outside counsel guidelines solution and using the underlying workflow and source code to built their own unique design.  Each client’s guidelines are broken down into a data record with component terms highlighted, and attorneys and staff can search for terms and easily access the source documents.

Smith gave the example of different clients specifying what personnel can and can’t be used.  Some bar paralegals, others rule out first-year associates, still others place caps on each category for a given matter.  “We can surface those,” he said.  “We have a standardized process to review them very quickly.”

When updated versions of guidelines roll in, Liepelt can turn to the database to identify what’s changed, then rapidly point out the differences to the partners involved.  When looking at intranet profiles for the firm’s attorneys, he and others can follow links to see what outside counsel guidelines apply to each matter they’re working on, guiding conversations about matter efficiency.  And, in the unlikely event of a data breach, the firm can quickly pull up the list of clients that need to be notified within 24 hours.

A Bellwether for the Relationship

One year into the new system, the feedback, from both inside and outside the firm, has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Smith and Liepelt.  Partners appreciate having an internal point person to whom they can direct their inquiries and concerns, while staff have the information at their disposal to do pre-bill auditing.  Turnaround time with clients has decreased by 25%.

“The delays are less on our side and more on their side,” Leipelt said. “We’re much more responsive than we were, and that leads to better relationships.”  Beyond that, the new system offers a selling point when it comes to marketing the firm.  “There’s not an RFP that we see these days that doesn’t specifically ask us what are the firm’s capabilities in innovation and improving processes,” Smith said. “How we handle outside counsel guidelines is a bellwether for our stewardship of their financial resources.”

Why Law Firms Struggle with Outside Counsel Guidelines

December 4, 2019

A recent the American Lawyer article by Dan Packel, “Why Firms Struggle With Outside Counsel Guidelines – and Pay the Price,” reports on a new survey that draws a straight line between lower realization rates and law firms’ failure to communicate the substance of outside counsel guidelines to billing attorneys.  The article reads:

Law firms are struggling to comply with clients’ outside counsel guidelines, leading to slower rates of realization and increasing write-offs, according to a recent report from timekeeping technology company Bellefield and the Association of Legal Administrators.  In the groups’ inaugural survey of respondents from nearly 200 law firms, they found that firms’ failure to communicate the substance of these guidelines to the attorneys who actually bill leads to invoices that are rejected or reduced.

“They’ve got to make that business case to attorneys,” said Patricia Nagy, a director at Proxy PR who helped write the report.  “Attorneys are being overwhelmed with new tasks, in terms of compliance and information governance, but this one hits directly and immediately to their pocketbooks if they don’t comply.”

While corporate legal departments have been probing the consequences of these outside counsel guidelines for several years, this is the first effort to gauge their impact on law firms.  The survey received participation from 198 firms, over 20% of which have over 300 attorneys.  Almost 35% had between 51 and 299 attorneys, and nearly 30% had between 10 and 50.

Nagy said that she was surprised to discover that nearly one-quarter of firms surveyed made no effort at all to communicate these guidelines to billing attorneys.  Over 52% of firms share these guidelines with attorneys via email, and 24% simply post them on the firm’s intranet, with the hopes that lawyers look at them.  “We weren’t surprised there were a lot of process failures,” Nagy said.  “What was surprising was the degree of the failures, and that a lot of them were using ‘hope’ strategies.”  Indeed, even among the firms that communicate these guidelines to billing attorneys, 82% do not require acknowledgment of receipt, and attorneys are only monitored to ensure they are following guidelines 55% of the time.

As a consequence, when navigating clients’ e-billing systems, firms are finding that an increasing number of invoices are being rejected, even as firms have managed to keep rates robust.  The ALA and Bellefield survey shows that 70% of firms believe that e-billing has not improved billing and collections, with billing and collection cycles expanding, for the most part by 30 days, according to 41% of respondents, or 60 days, per 29%.

Rejections are also a growing problem. Nearly half the firms surveyed experience 5% to 10% of their e-bills rejected or reduced.  And 15% do not appeal rejections, either because of inadequate staffing or because they treat them as a cost of doing business.  Nagy noted that as clients increasingly use metrics to evaluate outside counsel, firms that make less friction during the invoicing process are more likely to receive repeat business.

Asked how they would like to improve the process, nearly 60% of respondents asked for more visibility into what corporate law departments actually want.  This tracks with a conclusion that these guidelines have actually made it harder for firms to communicate with clients, a sentiment shared with 40% of respondents, compared to 11% who point to improved communications.  And 45% of respondents hoped for a technological solution that would help them make sense of these guidelines.  With different guidelines coming in from each client, automation becomes a particularly challenging task.

NALFA Conducts Hourly Rate Survey of Class Counsel in Dallas

August 26, 2019

NALFA conducts hourly rate surveys for law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.  Our surveys provide the most accurate and current hourly rates within a given geography and practice area.  We can design hourly rate surveys for specific cases.  Our hourly rate surveys assist state and federal courts in awarding attorney fees in large, complex litigation throughout the U.S. 

NALFA recently conducted an hourly rate survey of plaintiffs’ counsel in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  This hourly rate survey was conduct for a Dallas area law firm seeking attorney fees in a product liability class action.  The last hourly rate survey of this type was conducted by the Dallas Bar Association in 2015.

This survey was conducted via email from May 5th-19th.  The survey results are private.  Only the client, survey participants, and members of the NALFA network received the results and findings.  The survey results show the current average hourly rate range for plaintiffs’ associate, senior associate, partner, and senior partner in class action litigation in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Participants of this survey can see how their hourly rates compare to those of their litigation peers.

For more on NALFA’s Custom Hourly Rate Surveys, visit http://www.thenalfa.org/hourly-rate-surveys/.

$75M Fee Award Draws Judicial Scrutiny in State Street Case

July 4, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Aaron Leibowitz, “$75M Fee Award in State Street Row Faces Judge’s Scrutiny,” reports that a Boston federal judge heard arguments on whether to reduce a $75 million attorney fee award for three firms that brokered a $300 million class action settlement with State Street Corp., saying the firms may have misled him about how fees are typically calculated in massive deals like this one.

In the first of up to three days of hearings, lawyers representing Labaton Sucharow LLP, Thornton Law Firm and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP said the 25% cut of the settlement that they received was reasonable under the circumstances, even in a so-called "megafund" settlement worth hundreds of millions of dollars   Some experts have suggested attorneys should receive a relatively smaller percentage of the total award when a settlement is that large.  Richard Heimann, an in-house attorney representing Lieff Cabraser, said the firms made note of those expert opinions when they first filed their fee request in 2016, and never had any intention of leading the judge astray.

"We discussed all this in the briefs," Heimann told U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf. "We were hardly hiding from your honor."  But Judge Wolf wondered why the firms had failed to mention in those briefs that a study they cited found that, in settlements ranging from $250 million to $500 million, the average fee award was 17.8%, well below the 25% they requested after their $300 million settlement.  The judge said he "basically trusted" the firms' own calculations at the time, suggesting it would have been difficult to reject their proposal given that multiple regulatory agencies had already reviewed it.

But a lot has changed since then, the judge noted. He has since vacated his original attorney fee award in the wake of a Boston Globe report that raised questions about the double-billing of attorneys' hours and a special master's investigation that found additional billing issues.

"I know much more than I knew in 2016," the judge said.  The special master, retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, held in his report that the 25% figure the firms used for attorney fees was proper, a point that his attorney emphasized again in court.  But Judge Rosen has maintained that Judge Wolf should lower the fee award by as much as to $10.6 million, including more than $4 million for hours that were allegedly double-billed and $2.3 million for so-called contract attorneys at Thornton who were paid a higher rate than he said they should have earned.

As the hearing wore into the late afternoon, attorneys for the three firms described their billing practices in detail and grappled with the varying definitions of contract attorneys versus staff attorneys.  Judge Rosen has suggested only that the billing for contract attorneys was improper, but the arguments also addressed rates charged for some staff attorneys who pored over documents in the case.

Joan Lukey of Choate Hall & Stewart LLP, representing Labaton, said the firm defines staff attorneys as those who are not on track to become partners but receive full benefits and do in-depth document work. In the State Street case, some received more than $400 an hour, she said.  "It troubles me when I hear suggestions that they should be treated as something other than what they are, which is very skilled and talented attorneys," Lukey said.

Frank Bednarz, a representative of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute — a nonprofit firm that has provided amicus guidance to Judge Wolf in the case — countered that those rates were far higher than what staff attorneys should be charged.  A more appropriate figure, he said, would be around $200 an hour.

A representative for Labaton told Law360 after the hearing that the firm hopes Judge Wolf ultimately accepts the special master's recommendations.  "Counsel for Special Master Rosen highlighted some of the factors supporting the reasonableness of the court’s original award of a 25% fee to class counsel," the firm said.  "That included the special master’s view that the underlying State Street action hinged on a complex and challenging case, with novel legal issues, at substantial risk of success, and the excellent work done by counsel in obtaining a record recovery for the class — against a highly formidable adversary."

Representatives for other parties in the case did not immediately return requests for comment after the hearing.  The underlying suit, filed in 2011, alleged that State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade.

The hearing will continue with witness testimony on some of the key issues that Judge Rosen flagged in his report, including allegedly false representations made to the court by Thornton's Garrett Bradley, a former Massachusetts state representative.  Judge Rosen's attorney, William Sinnott of Barrett & Singal PC, said that there was "no legitimate basis" for Bradley to sign the fee declaration he submitted in the case, in part because the firm did not have any hourly clients.  "It was just so outrageously inaccurate," Sinnott said.

The case is Arkansas Teacher Retirement System v. State Street Corp. et al., case number 1:11-cv-10230, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.