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NALFA Members Quoted in Bloomberg Story on Billing Rates

June 10, 2022

A recent Bloomberg Law story by Roy Strom, “Big Law Rates Topping $2,000 Leave Value ‘In Eye of Beholder’” quoted two NALFA members, John D. O'Connor of O'Connor & Associates in San Francisco and Jacqueline S. Vinaccia of Vanst Law LLP in San Diego, on a news story on hourly billing rates.  His story reads:

Some of the nation’s top law firms are charging more than $2,000 an hour, setting a new pinnacle after a two-year burst in demand.  Partners at Hogan Lovells and Latham & Watkins have crossed the threshold, according to court documents in bankruptcy cases filed within the past year.  Other firms came close to the mark, billing more than $1,900, according to the documents.  They include Kirkland & Ellis, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Boies Schiller Flexner, and Sidley Austin.

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett litigator Bryce Friedman, who helps big-name clients out of jams, especially when they’re accused of fraud, charges $1,965 every 60 minutes, according to a court document.  In need of a former acting US Solicitor General? Hogan Lovells partner Neal Katyal bills time at $2,465 an hour.  Want to hire famous litigator David Boies?  That’ll cost $1,950 an hour (at least).  Reuters was first to report their fees.

Eye-watering rates are nothing new for Big Law firms, which typically ask clients to pay higher prices at least once a year, regardless of broader market conditions.  “Value is in the eye of the beholder,” said John O’Connor, a San Francisco-based expert on legal fees.  “The perceived value of a good lawyer can reach into the multi-billions of dollars.”  Law firms have been more successful raising rates than most other businesses over the past 15 years.

Law firm rates rose by roughly 40 percent from 2007 to 2020, or just short of 3 percent per year, Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor data show.  US inflation rose by about 28% during that time.  The 100 largest law firms in the past two years achieved their largest rate increases in more than a decade, Peer Monitor says.  The rates surged more than 6% in 2020 and grew another 5.6% through November of last year.  Neither level had been breached since 2008.

The price hikes occurred during a once-in-a-decade surge in demand for law services, which propelled profits at firms to new levels.  Fourteen law firms reported average profits per equity partner in 2021 over $5 million, according to data from The American Lawyer.  That was up from six the previous year.

The highest-performing firms, where lawyers charge the highest prices, have outperformed their smaller peers.  Firms with leading practices in markets such as mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, and real estate were forced to turn away work at some points during the pandemic-fueled surge.  Firms receive relatively tepid pushback from their giant corporate clients, especially when advising on bet-the-company litigation or billion-dollar deals.

The portion of bills law firms collected—a sign of how willingly clients pay full-freight—rose during the previous two years after drifting lower following the Great Financial Crisis.  Collection rates last year breached 90% for the first time since 2009, Peer Monitor data show.  Professional rules prohibit lawyers from charging “unconscionable” or “unreasonable” rates. 

But that doesn’t preclude clients from paying any price they perceive as valuable, said Jacqueline Vinaccia, a San Diego-based lawyer who testifies on lawyer fee disputes.  Lawyers’ fees are usually only contested when they will be paid by a third party.

That happened recently with Hogan Lovells’ Katyal, whose nearly $2,500 an hour fee was contested in May by a US trustee overseeing a bankruptcy case involving a Johnson & Johnson unit facing claims its talc-based powders caused cancer.  The trustee, who protects the financial interests of bankruptcy estates, argued Katyal’s fee was more than $1,000 an hour higher than rates charged by lawyers in the same case at Jones Day and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.  A hearing on the trustee’s objection is scheduled for next week.  Hogan Lovells did not respond to a request for comment on the objection.

Vinaccia said the firm’s options will be to reduce its fee, withdraw from the case, or argue the levy is reasonable, most likely based on Katyal’s extensive experience arguing appeals.  Still, the hourly rate shows just how valuable the most prestigious lawyers’ time can be—even compared to their highly compensated competitors.  “If the argument is that Jones Day and Skadden Arps are less expensive, then you’re already talking about the cream of the crop, the top-of-the-barrel law firms,” Vinaccia said.  “I can’t imagine a case in which I might argue those two firms are more reasonable than the rates I’m dealing with.”

Judge Wants To See Math in Apple’s $27M Antitrust Fee Request

June 7, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Dorothy Atkins, “Apple’s $100M Deal Gets OK, $27M Atty Fee Bid Hits Bump” reports that a California federal judge said she'll approve Apple's $100 million deal resolving class antitrust claims by app developers, but told class counsel she wants more information about the "math" behind their $27 million attorney fee request and how much their fee bid will reduce claims by small app developers.

During a hearing in Oakland, California, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers told class counsel Steve W. Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, to submit a mathematical breakdown of how much each class member would receive if she awarded class counsel $25 million in fees instead of the $27 million they requested from the nonreversionary settlement.

The judge noted that for some developers, who she pointed out "really are the people who are taking the brunt of this," the difference between $1,000 and $2,000 may be significant.

"That's why I want to see the numbers," she said.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers also noted the deal was struck in the wake of Epic Games Inc.'s high-stakes antitrust bench trial last year against Apple Inc., which she presided over, and which asserts similar but separate antitrust claims against Apple.

"This is a good settlement," the judge told Berman. "You all did a good job, but it's also pretty quick, relatively speaking, for these types of antitrust cases. And it certainly was in large part quick because we worked really hard to get the Epic v. Apple [trial] done in a short period of time, and as a consequence, you in some ways were the beneficiaries of that. So this isn't like [other antitrust litigation] where it was an extended period of litigation."

Apple struck the proposed deal with roughly 6,700 software app developers last year to resolve class claims first launched in 2019 by Donald R. Cameron, maker of a baby naming app, and Pure Sweat Basketball Inc., a basketball training company.

The developers accused Apple of ensuring its store is the only place for iPhone users to buy apps and imposing allegedly anti-competitive, 30% commission fees on all in-app purchases.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers preliminarily approved the deal in November 2021. In March, Apple said class counsel's request for $27 million in fees is higher than the 25% benchmark set by the Ninth Circuit.

During the hearing Tuesday, Berman agreed to submit the additional information to the judge by the end of the day, but he also pointed out that class counsel not only filed the case and negotiated a significant settlement for the class — which he noted represents 19% of the potential maximum recovery — but class counsel also took all the depositions.

He added that the $27 million fee request, which represents 27% of the total fund, is within the range of percentages approved by other courts in the district. He also noted the fee request also represents a 2.4 lodestar hourly multiplier, which is also "in the realm of multiples" affirmed by the Ninth Circuit.

Additionally, he said class counsel expects the claims rate to increase from roughly 30% to 40% by the time checks are sent out at the end of the summer, in part due to class counsel's repeated efforts to reach class members.

"We weren't sitting back thinking our job was done," he said.

Even with awarding class counsel $27 million in fees, some app developers will likely receive between $80,000 and $123,000, which is much higher than most class action payouts, he said.

"People are getting real money," he said.

At the end of the hearing, Judge Gonzalez Rogers said she would take the matter under advisement.

She added she wanted to take the opportunity to inform litigants in the courtroom that the Northern District of California is "now in the worst emergency of our entire circuit" due to judicial shortages.

"We have multiple vacancies, we have no new judges yet, and our weighted case average is 817 cases per district judge," she said.

She added that the district judges' criminal dockets are "exploding" and even if new judges are nominated, it'll take months for U.S. Congress to confirm them.

"I just want to encourage everybody in your law firms and the bar to think about consenting to magistrate judges," the judge told the attorneys. "Try to only bring us things you actually have to because we are all feeling it."

Judge Gonzalez Rogers also noted that multiple judges in the district — including U.S. District Judge Edward Davila who has been presiding over criminal fraud trials against former Theranos executives for nearly a year — have been in multiple months-long trials, and attorneys "now need to think beyond your disputes and try to really be judicial with what your filings because there's a huge impact."

"We're in a particular mess these days," she said.

Eleventh Circuit Tosses Insurer’s Request for Attorney Fees

June 2, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Josh Liberatore, “11th Circ. Tosses Insurer’s Bid For Atty Fees After Reversal” reports that an insurer can't seek attorney fees on a $1.6 million judgment it previously won against a Liberty Mutual unit, the Eleventh Circuit confirmed, which comes after the court recently vacated the insurer's win on claims that the Liberty unit breached its contract while defending a fatal accident suit.  In an unpublished opinion, the appellate panel denied Endurance American Specialty Insurance Co.'s bid for attorney fees as moot. 

In May, the Eleventh Circuit reversed Endurance's $1.6 million win, finding that it couldn't show how Safeco Insurance Co. breached an indemnity agreement it had with Comegys Insurance Agency Inc., which was insured by Endurance.  "Safeco did win its appeal," the panel noted, "so, Endurance may not seek attorneys' fees."  Endurance had asked the Eleventh Circuit to overturn a lower court judge's ruling that its claims for attorney fees stemming from the judgment against Safeco were time-barred because Endurance failed to seek the fees within 14 days of the judgment.

The coverage dispute stems from an accident between driver Robert Smith and a motorcyclist, who died.  Safeco insured Smith, who bought his policies through Comegys.  Smith faced a wrongful death suit for which Safeco assigned an attorney who defended the case, and eventually a $7.3 million consent judgment was entered against Smith, according to court documents.  The consent judgment included Safeco paying the motorcyclist's estate the limits of Smith's auto policy, $1.25 million, and assigning the estate Safeco's claim against Comegys for negligent procurement, based on the theory that Comegys failed to find Smith a more robust policy after he had inquired about raising his policy limits.

Endurance insures Comegys under an errors and omissions policy, according to its suit.  The motorcyclist's estate pursued Endurance and Comegys "for the limit of Comegys's policy with Endurance," according to court documents.  The companies eventually paid just over $1.5 million to end the claims, court records show.

Endurance then sought to recoup the money from Safeco, arguing Safeco had breached its contract with Comegys by refusing to indemnify it for the alleged negligence.  Endurance's argument hinged on Safeco assigning an attorney to defend Smith, who allegedly mentioned to the motorcyclist's estate the possibility of a negligent procurement claim against Comegys and recommended an insurance lawyer to the estate.  In July 2019, a jury found in Endurance's favor, and the lower court entered a $1.6 million judgment against Safeco.

While Safeco appealed that decision to the Eleventh Circuit, Endurance launched an appeal of its own, arguing it should be awarded attorney fees for the judgment.  However, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the judgment last month, finding that Endurance couldn't show how Safeco had breached its contract with Comegys.  Safeco had acted entirely within the terms of that agreement by providing an insurance policy to Comegys's customers, tendering the policy on time after the accident and providing an attorney to Smith to defend the suit, the Eleventh Circuit panel presiding over that case found.  Safeco can't be held liable for what Smith's attorney decided to do after that, the panel said.

Should Judges Police The Gender Hourly Rate Disparity?

June 1, 2022

A recent Law 360 story by Andrew Stricker, “Should Judges Police The Legal Industry Pay Gap?” reports that as the pay gap between male and female attorneys persists despite industry pledges to do better, the power of judges to potentially bridge the divide is coming into sharper focus.  Following an unusual decision by a federal magistrate, some members of the Philadelphia bar have endorsed the idea that other judges should follow suit and help police gender pay inequities, or at least call them out from the bench.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice recently issued the order critiquing elements of a notable employment firm's request and awards that put attorney "status" over performance.  "I don't think it's always my role, but in this instance, I felt I had to set the rates based on the performance of the attorneys who really tried the case, and not a rate that was maybe based more on age or seniority," Judge Rice told Law360 Pulse.

In April, Judge Rice was overseeing the last stage of an age discrimination case brought by Alison Ray, a former sales director at AT&T Mobility Services who was let go at age 49 after more than two decades at the company.  Following a five-day trial, Ray last year secured a $2.3 million award after a jury determined that a company restructuring plan had targeted older employees as "surplus."

In February, lawyers at the firm representing Ray, Console Mattiacci Law LLC, asked for $847,945 in "shifted" fees from AT&T.  That lodestar calculation, based on a 40% contingency agreement, was justified by the complexity of the plaintiff's case, Ray's counsel argued, as well as a "complete and total victory" on her claims that AT&T had willfully violated federal age discrimination law.  The fee petition included nearly 1,570 hours from partners Susan Saint-Antoine and Laura C. Mattiacci, a highly experienced lead trial counsel, and associate Daniel S. Orlow. Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci, who have practiced since 1989 and 2002, respectively, both listed their "usual and customary" rate of $730 an hour. Orlow, who has practiced since 2011, was at $320 an hour.

The petition also included 37 hours contributed by firm principal Stephen G. Console. Console, a nationally recognized employment law expert, charged $900 an hour for consulting on strategy decisions and filings, as well as settlement demands and other key elements of the case.  In an order granting a handful of reductions totaling about $83,000, Judge Rice said Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci should be entitled to the same per-hour rate as Console, who has been practicing for three decades.

"Historically, women in law earn less than their male counterparts, a discrepancy that may reflect hidden bias," he said, citing a 2020 report that found widening pay discrepancies at large law firms.  Referring to a fee schedule used widely in the Third Circuit to determine market rates for Philadelphia-area lawyers, Judge Rice said Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci should be in line for a "premium" over those numbers that put them in line with Console.  Even if the fee schedule "serves as a useful guide on setting hourly rates, its reference to experience should not serve as a cap that precludes exceptionally talented trial lawyers from receiving fair compensation simply because of age or gender," Judge Rice said.

The legal industry pay gap, and its role in women reaching firm leadership and a lack of diversity in many areas of the profession, has been under intense scrutiny for years, but without much in the way of real progress.  In the 2020 report cited by Judge Rice, legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa found that partner compensation soared between 2010 and 2018.  But in that same period, the pay disparity between male and female equity partners widened significantly, from 24% to 35%.

Nancy Ezold, a veteran Philadelphia employment lawyer, said it was "absolutely" appropriate for Judge Rice to consider rate disparities for lawyers in his court, even though AT&T counsel hadn't raised the issue in its fee-award opposition.  "I don't know of anything in the law that says you have to consider what a law firm pays people," Ezold said.  "But Judge Rice looks at the bigger picture and asks, 'Am I going to do something to perpetuate an inequality and authorize a fee for a male partner over two female partners who really handled this case?'"

Ezold, who once sued her own former law firm in the late 1980s for denying her a partnership based on her gender, argued that fee petitions often provide a substantive overview of who did what work over the history of a litigation.  Depending on the nature of the case, they can also be an opportunity for judges to compare requested rates across different firms and legal teams comprising different gender and experience makeups.

"Here the judge couldn't overlook a difference between male and female in this case because it related directly to the responsibility to decide what would be allowed for each of these attorneys," Ezold said.  "Judges speak out on a lot of things, and I don't see why this should be any different."  Judge Rice served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania before being appointed as a federal magistrate in 2005.  He retired in April, just after issuing the Ray opinion.

In an interview with Law360 Pulse, Judge Rice said the timing was coincidental, noting that the issue of male-female pay disparities had never before been "so squarely presented" to him in a fee petition.  "From the [fee] affidavits I see, and from all I know about law firm pay structures, I do think the pay gap is huge, and there are just so many variables out there that have cut against giving women equal pay," such as lack of trial experience and other opportunities to advance, he said.

"When I see lawyers perform in an exemplary fashion, it's appropriate they be paid at higher rates commensurate with their skills, not just based on the years they've practiced," Judge Rice added.  Alice Ballard, another veteran Philadelphia employment lawyer who provided a fee affidavit in the Ray case, said Judge Rice's prior time as a trial lawyer was evident in the opinion, including in his positive assessment of the hours Console Mattiacci dedicated to mock trial runs and other "essential" advocacy preparation.

Judge Rice "really understands what it means to prepare for a trial like this, and everyone on my beat really appreciates that," she said.  But Ballard took issue with Judge Rice's ultimate reliance on what she described as an outdated fee schedule, rates that don't well reflect the special skills of trial work, Mattiacci's successful track record or the contingency fee model.

She also cautioned against reading the opinion as a critique of the hourly rate request for Console, whom she called a "lion" of the city's employment bar.  Regarding his reference to the legal industry's gender pay disparities,"it's great that he took the opportunity to bring it up, but I just don't think it has much to do with this specific case," Ballard said.

FTC’s ‘Holder Rule’ Doesn’t Bar Attorney Fee Award

May 31, 2022

A recent Metropolitan News story, “FTC’s ‘Holder Rule’ Doesn’t Bar Attorney Fee Award” reports that the Federal Trade Commission’s “Holder Rule”—under which an assignee of a consumer credit contract cannot be held liable for a breach by the seller for more than what the purchaser has paid—does not preclude the award of attorney fees in excess of that amount under California’s “lemon law,” the California Supreme Court held.

Justice Goodwin H. Liu authored the opinion which affirms a Jan. 29, 2021 decision by Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal. Div. Five, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Laurence D. Rubin, upheld a $169,602 award of attorney fees against TD Auto Finance, LLC, declaring that “the Holder Rule does not limit the attorney fees that a plaintiff may recover from a creditor-assignee.”  Yesterday’s opinion resolves a conflict among the courts of appeal.

Under a provision of the Code of Federal Regulations, a consumer credit contract must include this notice: “Any holder of this consumer credit contract is subject to all claims and defenses which the debtor could assert against the seller of goods or services obtained pursuant hereto or with the proceeds hereof. Recovery hereunder by the debtor shall not exceed amounts paid by the debtor hereunder.”

The contract that Tania Pulliam signed when she purchased a used Nissan from HNL Automotive Inc. in Beverly Hills contained that language.  Dissatisfied with the vehicle she purchased, Pulliam sued HNL and the assignee of the contract, TD Auto Finance, under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (the “lemon law”) and was awarded $21,957.25 in damages.  TD insisted that the award against it of attorney fees, under the act’s fee-shifting provision, was improper because Pulliam was entitled to nothing in excess of what she had paid under the credit contract.

Disagreeing, Liu wrote: “We conclude that the Holder Rule does not limit the award of attorney’s fees where, as here, a buyer seeks fees from a holder under a state prevailing party statute.  The Holder Rule’s limitation extends only to ‘recovery hereunder.’  This caps fees only where a debtor asserts a claim for fees against a seller and the claim is extended to lie against a holder by virtue of the Holder Rule.  Where state law provides for recovery of fees from a holder, the Rule’s history and purpose as well as the Federal Trade Commission’s repeated commentary make clear that nothing in the Rule limits the application of that law.”

Before the FTC enacted its rule in 1975, Liu recited, a consumer was liable to the holder in due course of a note even for goods that were not delivered.  The rule places the holder in the shoes of the seller, subjecting it to all claims against, and defenses available to, the seller, limiting damages against the seller, and consequently against the assignee, he explained.  In formulating the rule, Liu said, “the FTC had damages in mind when limiting recovery under the Rule, and there is no indication that attorney’s fees were intended to be included within its scope.”

Attorney fees, in California, where awardable, are costs, not an element of damages, he noted.  The FTC, itself, has issued an advisory opinion declaring, “the Holder Rule does not limit recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs when state law authorizes awards against a holder,” Liu said.  The justice pointed out: “Were attorney’s fees part of the Holder Rule’s limit on recovery, the effective result for many, if not most, consumers would be the same as their options were under the holder in due course rule that the FTC sought to supplant.”