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Category: Billing Increments

Article: What is a Legal Fee Audit?

October 7, 2021

A recent article by Jacqueline Vinaccia of Vanst Law LLP in San Diego “What is a Legal Fee Audit?,” reports on legal fee audits.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys usually bill clients by the hour, in six minute increments (because those six minutes equal one tenth of an hour: 0.1).  Those hours are multiplied by the attorney’s hourly rate to determine the attorney’s fee.  There is another aspect of attorney billing that is not as well known, but equally important — legal fee auditing.  During an audit, a legal fee auditor reviews billing records to determine if hourly billing errors or inefficiencies occurred, and deducts unreasonable or unnecessary fees and costs.

Both the law and legal ethics restrict attorneys from billing clients fees that are unreasonable or unnecessary to the advancement of the client’s legal objectives.  This can include analysis of the reasonableness of the billing rate charged by attorneys.  Legal fee audits are used by consumers of legal services, including businesses, large insurance companies, cities, public and governmental agencies, and individual clients.  Legal fee audits can be necessary when there is a dispute between an attorney and client; when the losing party in a lawsuit is required to pay all or part of the prevailing party’s legal fees in litigation; when an insurance company is required to pay a portion of legal fees, or when some issues in a lawsuit allow recovery of  attorneys’ fees and when other issues do not (an allocation of fees). 

In an audit, the auditor interviews the client, and reviews invoices sent to the client in conjunction with legal case materials to identify all fees and costs reasonable and necessary to the advancement of the client’s legal objectives, and potentially deduct those that are not.  The auditor also reviews all invoices to identify any potential accounting errors and assure that time and expenses are billed accurately.  The auditor may also be asked to determine if the rate charged by the attorney is appropriate.

The legal fee auditor can be an invaluable asset to parties in deciding whether to file or settle a lawsuit, and to the courts charged with issuing attorneys’ fee awards.  The court is unlikely to take the time to review individual invoice entries to perform a proper allocation of recoverable and non-recoverable fees leaving the parties with the court’s “best approximation” of what the allocation should be.  The fee audit provides the court and the parties with the basis for which to allocate and appropriately award reasonable and necessary fees. 

Audits are considered a litigation best practice and a risk management tool and can save clients substantial amounts of money in unnecessary fees.  It has been my experience, over the past two decades of fee auditing, that early fee auditing can identify and correct areas of concern in billing practices and avoid larger disputes in litigation later.  In many cases, I have assisted clients and counsel in reaching agreement on proper billing practices and setting litigation cost expectations. 

In other cases, I have been asked by both plaintiffs and defendants to review attorneys’ fees and costs incurred and provide the parties and the court with my expert opinion regarding the total attorneys’ fees and costs were reasonably and necessarily incurred to pursue the client's legal objectives.  While the court does not always agree with my analysis of fees and costs incurred, it is usually assisted in its decision by the presentation of the audit report and presentation of expert testimony on the issues.

Jacqueline Vinaccia is a San Diego trial attorney, litigator, and national fee auditor expert, and a partner at Vanst Law LLP.  Her practice focuses on business and real estate litigation, general tort liability, insurance litigation and coverage, construction disputes, toxic torts, and municipal litigation.  Her attorney fee analyses have been cited by the U.S. District Court for Northern California and Western Washington, several California Superior Courts, as well as various other state courts and arbitrators throughout the United States.  She has published and presented extensively on the topic of attorney fee invoicing, including presentations to the National Association of Legal Fee Association (NALFA), and is considered one of the nation’s top fee experts by NALFA.

Article: Actual and Necessary: A Guide to Keeping Time So You Get Paid

June 6, 2021

A recent ABI Journal article by Brittany B. Falabella and Allison P. Klena, “Actual and Necessary: A Guide to Keeping Time So You Get Paid,” reports on good billing practices in large Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Billing time is one of the most dreaded aspects of private practice in any field of law, but not because it is hard or overly time-consuming.  The extra step of recording discrete, detailed time entries is much more than an annoyance.  For bank­ruptcy practitioners employed under §§ 327, 1103 and 1051 of the Bankruptcy Code and certain credi­tors’ counsel,2 it is a step that cannot be done in a sloppy, haphazard way — at least, if the attorney wants to be paid.

In non-bankruptcy areas of practice, an attorney may have to explain generic, unclear and blocked billing to a client.  However, a bankruptcy practi­tioner’s bills are subject not only to this review, but also to that of multiple other parties, including the U.S. Trustee’s Office, debtors, committees, interest-holders and, most importantly, the court, before the practitioner will be awarded compensation under §§ 330 and/or 331.  Developing proper billing habits from the start will pay for itself — literally.

Although most new attorneys who enter an established bankruptcy practice will have standard forms for fee applications, taking the time to under­stand the law informing a court’s analysis is the first step in understanding how to effectively and proper­ly keep time for easy approval.  The first part of this article discusses the Code sections and cases that likely apply to every fee application.  The second part discusses the common pitfalls that can result in a court reducing a fee request, and easy and practi­cal tips to avoid them.  By making proper billing a habit rather than a dreaded task, the foundation will be laid to get paid in full.

The Laws of Getting Paid: Section 330 of the Bankruptcy Code

Under § 330, after notice and a hearing an attor­ney may be awarded (1) “reasonable compensa­tion for actual, necessary services rendered” and (2) “reimbursement for actual, necessary expens­es.”  On the court’s own motion or that of any party-in-interest, a court can, however, reduce the com­pensation requested.  In making the determination of whether and how much to reduce a request, the court is directed to consider the nature, the extent, and the value of such services, taking into account all rel­evant factors, including:

(A) the time spent on such services;

(B) the rates charged for such services;

(C) whether the services were neces­sary to the administration of, or ben­eficial at the time at which the service was rendered toward the completion of, a case under this title;

(D) whether the services were per­formed within a reasonable amount of time commensurate with the com­plexity, importance, and nature of the problem, issue, or task addressed;

(E) with respect to a professional per­son, whether the person is board cer­tified or otherwise has demonstrated the skill and experience in the bank­ruptcy field; and

(F) whether the compensation is rea­sonable based on the customary com­pensation charged by comparably skilled practitioners in cases other than cases under this title.6

In addition, the court “shall not allow compensation for — (i) unnecessary duplication of services; or (ii) services that were not (I) reasonably likely to benefit the debtor’s estate, or (II) necessary to the administration of the case.”

The Lodestar Method

The lodestar method is a court’s starting point for deter­mining whether fees billed were reasonable.  The “lodestar” equals a reasonable amount of time for the matter multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.  Reasonable time is the time that the court believes a billing attorney should have spent on the matter.  Then, a “reasonable hourly rate” is calculated with reference to a billing attorney’s experience and skill, as well as prevailing rates in the community for similar services provided by reasonably comparable attorneys.  The sum (i.e., the lodestar) may then be adjusted to account for the specific demands of the case, often with reference to some or all of the 12 Johnson factors.

The Johnson Factors

The Johnson factors are derived from the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express Inc., and consist of the following: (1) the time and labor expended; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions raised; (3) the skill required to properly perform the legal services rendered; (4) the attorney’s opportunity costs in pressing the instant litigation; (5) the customary fee for like work; (6) the attor­ney’s expectations at the outset of the litigation; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount in controversy and the results obtained; (9) the expe­rience, reputation and ability of the attorney; (10) the unde­sirability of the case within the legal community in which the suit arose; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship between attorney and client; and (12) attorneys’ fee awards in similar cases.

However, courts have not taken a uniform approach to the Johnson factors.  Some courts view the factors as already subsumed into the lodestar method, while others apply the lodestar method and then look to the Johnson factors to decide whether the lodestar amount should be modified.  Still other courts consider the Johnson factors in conjunction with calculation of the lodestar,  Although these distinctions may matter in some cases, the one- and two-step processes will often generate essentially similar results, especially given that enhancement of the lodestar is a rare occurrence.

Biggest Pitfalls and Strategies to Avoid Them

Even with an understanding of the law, unless time records are maintained in anticipation of bankruptcy court review, a practitioner will often fall into some of the pitfalls discussed below. In many cases, a simple fix can nip errors in the bud.  This avoids the headache of reviewing and editing voluminous invoices at the end of a fee-application period or the end of a case, and, most importantly, permitting the court to allow fees in full and without objection.

Not Enough Detail/Excessive Billing

Vague time entries are virtually always a problem.  A gen­eral, shorthand description might be easy to understand for the time-keeper doing the work and making a contemporane­ous record (it goes without saying to always keep contem­poraneous time).  However, the court and other parties who analyze vague, generic time entries do not have the benefit of the billing attorney’s on-the-spot thoughts.

Time entries should be drafted with an eye toward explaining and justifying why the work was “reasonable and necessary,” and how it benefited the estate or a constituent.  Entries such as “reviewed emails” are certainly insufficient, but even additional details, such as “conference with X con­cerning research and strategy” or “conference with X con­cerning pending matter related to debtor” might not provide enough detail for a court to determine whether the time was justified.  Vague entries can cause the court to spend time attempting to decipher the context, conduct an evidentiary hearing, or simply deny the compensation.

While courts frequently complain that counsel have engaged in excessive billing, the heart of the issue is fre­quently that the court does not understand how the amount of time billed was “reasonable and necessary.” In other words, the billing entry was not specific or detailed enough to explain to the court that the full amount of time delegated to a task benefited the estate or was necessary to the admin­istration of the case.  This issue is often remedied if detailed descriptions are crafted with an eye toward the benefit to the case as previously explained.

Vague and ambiguous entries are a common and costly mistake.  No attorney, particularly a new associate, wants their entries to be the reason that the firm’s fee application is reduced or its approval delayed.  Taking the time to carefully prepare time entries is essential, not optional.

Tip: Have an attorney or professional assistant who is not working on the case review the time entries.  If that person cannot understand the value of the time billed or the task that was completed, more detail should be included until it becomes clear.  If it becomes necessary to bill significant time to certain tasks, make sure the explanation is particularly thorough to explain the circumstances.

Block-Billing

Similar to time entries that are insufficiently detailed, time entries that are block-billed — multiple tasks com­bined in a one-time entry — do not establish for the review­er (1) how much time was spent on a particular task, or (2) whether the time spent on each task was reasonable.  For example, if an attorney records 3.0 hours total for “review of a motion for approval of DIP financing; telephone call with debtor’s counsel concerning alternative financing sought; and email to client regarding financing options for debtor’s continued operation under chapter 11 and recommendation not to object to the filed DIP financing motion,” the court has no idea whether the review of the motion took 0.6 hours (presumably reasonable) or 2.7 hours (perhaps unreason­able absent additional undescribed factors).  According to the U.S. Trustee’s guidelines, while block-billing is gener­ally not allowed, a single daily entry that combines de mini­mus tasks can be combined, provided that the entry does not exceed 0.5 hours.

A consequence of block-billing is that the court may conclude that it lacks the information to trim excessive time from a particular task among those blocked, and may choose to reduce the total time billed by a discretionary percentage.  The goal is to establish that your work was reasonable and necessary.  Do not give a court an “excuse” to question the reasonableness of your time by block-billing.

Tip: Break up time entries so that each task corresponds to the amount of time spent on that task — even if the amount of time is modest.  Making use of time-tracking software or timers and developing good habits can be quite helpful in mastering detailed task-billing.

Not Delegating to Proper Staff/Duplicative Billing

Whether certain tasks are properly completed by senior-level attorneys, lower-level attorneys or support staff is largely out of the control of an associate.  Nevertheless, there will be times when tasks that would be more suitable for a junior-lev­el attorney must be completed by a senior attorney, or where an attorney may need to complete a task that would ordinar­ily be delegated to a staff person.  Similarly, there are times when multiple attorneys must participate in the same hearing or conference, which reviewing courts often view skeptically.

In such situations, courts are more inclined to allow the “double billing” if the exigent circumstances are explained in the entry and such staffing situations are kept to a mini­mum.  When matters are not explained or apparent from the time description, the court is left to question how the time and/or rates are reasonable and necessary.

Tip: While a junior associate might not have much con­trol over the delegation of tasks, associates typically draft the fee applications, so they should keep this issue in mind when reviewing bills and flag any issues with a supervising attorney prior to filing.  A good-faith reduction for certain tasks might go a long way with the court and other parties-in-interest.  At a minimum, make sure your own time is not subject to objection or reduction.  If you find yourself bill­ing time to routine tasks, be sure the circumstances are fully explained in the entry.

Conclusion

Given the consequences of failing to record time properly, it is well worth the time to develop the habit ofrecording specific time entries that are separated by each task performed and that indicate that how the time spent was both reasonable and necessary. With such a “reason­able and necessary” standard as a guide, a professional can ensure that the court and other interested parties under­stand the value being added to the case and that the fees requested are fully warranted.

The Nation’s Top Attorney Fee Experts of 2020

June 24, 2020

NALFA, a non-profit group, is building a worldwide network of attorney fee expertise. Our network includes members, faculty, and fellows with expertise on the reasonableness of attorney fees.  We help organize and recognize qualified attorney fee experts from across the U.S. and around the globe.  Our attorney fee experts also include court adjuncts such as bankruptcy fee examiners, special fee masters, and fee dispute neutrals.

Every year, we announce the nation's top attorney fee experts.  Attorney fee experts are retained by fee-seeking or fee-challenging parties in litigation to independently prove reasonable attorney fees and expenses in court or arbitration.  The following NALFA profile quotes are based on bio, CV, case summaries and case materials submitted to and verified by us.  Here are the nation's top attorney fee experts of 2020:

"The Nation's Top Attorney Fee Expert"
John D. O'Connor
O'Connor & Associates
San Francisco, CA
 
"Over 30 Years of Legal Fee Audit Expertise"
Andre E. Jardini
KPC Legal Audit Services, Inc.
Glendale, CA

"The Nation's Top Bankruptcy Fee Examiner"
Robert M. Fishman
Cozen O'Connor
Chicago, IL

"Widely Respected as an Attorney Fee Expert"
Elise S. Frejka
Frejka PLLC
New York, NY
 
"Experienced on Analyzing Fees, Billing Entries for Fee Awards"
Robert L. Kaufman
Woodruff Spradlin & Smart
Costa Mesa, CA

"Highly Skilled on a Range of Fee and Billing Issues"
Daniel M. White
White Amundson APC
San Diego, CA
 
"Extensive Expertise on Attorney Fee Matters in Common Fund Litigation"
Craig W. Smith
Robbins LLP
San Diego, CA
 
"Highly Experienced in Dealing with Fee Issues Arising in Complex Litigation"
Marc M. Seltzer
Susman Godfrey LLP
Los Angeles, CA

"Total Mastery in Resolving Complex Attorney Fee Disputes"
Peter K. Rosen
JAMS
Los Angeles, CA
 
"Understands Fees, Funding, and Billing Issues in Cross Border Matters"
Glenn Newberry
Eversheds Sutherland
London, UK
 
"Solid Expertise with Fee and Billing Matters in Complex Litigation"
Bruce C. Fox
Obermayer Rebmann LLP
Pittsburgh, PA
 
"Excellent on Attorney Fee Issues in Florida"
Debra L. Feit
Stratford Law Group LLC
Fort Lauderdale, FL
 
"Nation's Top Scholar on Attorney Fees in Class Actions"
Brian T. Fitzpatrick
Vanderbilt Law School
Nashville, TN
 
"Great Leader in Analyzing Legal Bills for Insurers"
Richard Zujac
Liberty Mutual Insurance
Philadelphia, PA