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Category: Fee Engagement Letter

NJ Law Firm Keeps Attorney Fees in Fee Dispute Action

July 28, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Nick Muscavage, “McCarter & English Keeps Win in $860K Fee Suit,” reports that a New Jersey state appeals court upheld an $860,000 judgment for McCarter & English in its suit seeking unpaid fees from former client Moerae Matrix, finding that the biotech company couldn't show how the fees were unreasonable.  Moerae Matrix, a Morristown-based biopharmaceutical company that develops treatments for fibrotic and inflammatory diseases, retained McCarter & English in August 2017 to provide legal services for intellectual property and patent matters, according to court documents.

By signing the engagement letter with the Newark-based firm, Moerae Matrix agreed to its terms, "including McCarter & English's hourly rates, according to court documents.  McCarter & English "regularly" emailed its invoices to Moerae Matrix for legal fees and expenses incurred throughout the course of its representation.  The invoices detailed the work performed by the firm, the attorneys involved, how much time was spent on the tasks, the date of the tasks and the cost of the services.

Although Moerae Matrix made "certain payments" to McCarter & English, it was not current on its fees.  In September 2018, Moerae Matrix proposed converting the full amount of the outstanding balance to a promissory note, "but the parties could not agree on terms," according to court documents.  Three months later, the biotech company notified McCarter & English by email that it decided to terminate the firm's representation and to transfer its legal needs to Cooley LLP.  The email sent to the firm said, "We truly valued all your support over the years and are committed to seeing that [McCarter & English] is paid in full for past services and costs," according to court documents.

In the record presented to the appellate court, Moerae Matrix did not provide the invoices from McCarter & English, according to court documents.  Instead, the biotech company provided only a detailed statement of account, which shows the amounts billed, payments made and the balance McCarter & English claimed was owed.  "As a result, we are unable to independently assess the invoices either to confirm their contents or to render an independent determination concerning the reasonableness or fairness of [McCarter & English's] fees," the appellate court wrote in its Tuesday opinion.

Beverly Lubit, a partner at McCarter & English, served as the originating, billing and handling attorney responsible for the day-to-day representation of Moerae Matrix.  In seeking a summary judgment of $860,593, McCarter & English submitted certifications to the trial court from Lubit and Daniel P. D'Alessandro, another attorney with the firm. Lubit certified that the legal services provided, and the expenses incurred as a result, "were reasonable and necessary," according to court documents.

In an effort to escape the unpaid legal fees, Moerae Matrix relied on certifications from Moerae Matrix's founder, chairman and chief executive officer, Dr. Cynthia Lander, who asserted that Cooley was handling the very same tasks that were handled by McCarter & English "for less than half of the cost."  She argued that McCarter & English "charged too much in fees for the work that it performed" and "that [McCarter & English] filed many more patent applications and filings than necessary to protect the intellectual property interests of [Moerae Matrix]."

Moerae Matrix relied on an additional certification, one from Texas patent attorney Frank Grassler, who claimed to be an expert in patent law.  "In short, Grassler opined [McCarter & English] did a great deal of work, which was simply not necessary," the three-judge appellate panel wrote in its opinion.  However, Moerae Matrix did not disclose Grassler as an expert in its responses to McCarter & English's interrogatories prior to the conclusion of discovery, as required by state court rules, nor did the biotech company move to amend its responses to identify Grassler as an expert or supply an expert report from him.

Instead, Moerae Matrix submitted Grassler's certification in opposition to McCarter & English's summary judgment motion "well after the conclusion of discovery and unaccompanied by a certification setting forth the reason [Moerae Matrix] failed to identify Grassler as an expert in its answers to [McCarter & English's] interrogatories," the appellate panel noted.

For these reasons, the appellate panel agreed with the trial court's decision to exclude Grassler's certification.  The appellate panel also found that Moerae Matrix could not point to "competent evidence it claims establishes [McCarter & English's] fees are unreasonable or unfair," according to court documents.  There is no basis to conclude that the trial court erred by awarding McCarter & English the unpaid legal fees, the appellate panel wrote in affirming the lower court's $837,524 judgment, plus interest and costs of suit.

Former AG’s Hourly Rate: $2,295

April 16, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Mike Scarcella, “Covington’s Eric Holder Bills at $2.295 Hourly, New Legal Services Contract Shows,” reports that Covington & Burling partner Eric Holder Jr., the Obama administration’s first U.S. attorney general and a veteran Washington lawyer, is billing at $2,295 hourly, according to a contract the law firm signed with a public university to conduct an internal investigation about workplace culture.  Holder is Covington’s lead partner on the legal services engagement with Oregon Health & Science University.  The school announced its retention of Covington in late March to lead a “comprehensive, independent investigation of institutional harassment, discrimination, retaliation and racism.”

Covington and other firms have long been hired to conduct internal investigations at companies and other institutions, but in many instances the engagement letters, revealing rates and the scope of legal services, are not matters of public record.  ALM obtained Covington’s contract through a public records request.  Holder’s $2,295 billing rate puts him at the high end of hourly figures.  Billing at other elite firms such as Weil, Gotshal Manges and Kirkland & Ellis have recently approached $2,000.

“Mr. Holder and Covington have conducted examinations of workplace culture and issues related to equity, diversity and inclusion for corporations including Uber, Starbucks and Airbnb,” the university said in announcing the retention of the Washington-based law firm.  The announcement noted that “Holder and the Covington team are also currently assessing race, equity, inclusion and diversity policies and practices at Seattle Children’s Hospital.”

Holder is working with Covington partner Nancy Kestenbaum, co-chair of the firm’s white-collar defense and investigations practice group and a former member of the firm’s management committee. Kestenbaum is billing at $1,445 an hour, the law firm’s engagement letter said.  Covington said it agreed to discount its rates by 10%.

“Hourly rates for other lawyers range from $595 for junior associates to $2,295 for senior partners; and for legal assistants from $290 to $545,” the firm said in its engagement letter.  The firm said it reviews and adjusts rates yearly as of Jan. 1, “although there are circumstances in which we may adjust rates at other times.”  Part of the contract contained information that the university would not release.  The information pertained to clients Covington is advising on clinical trials being conducted at the university.

“As you recognize, we are a large law firm with multiple practices in multiple offices throughout the world, and we represent many different clients in many different industries, including clients who are competitors of each other and sometimes adversaries in legal matters,” Holder wrote.  “In taking on this representation, we commit that we will not represent any other client in any matter adverse to you that is substantially related to this matter.”

A private law firm charging a public client is not rare.  Public records show major U.S. law firms have charged local or state government clients to take a case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Not every engagement, however, is charged. Some work is done pro bono.