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Category: Legal Spend

Under Economic Pressure, More Firms Sue Clients for Unpaid Fees

April 13, 2021

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Justin Henry, “Under Economic Pressure, Large Firms May Increasing Sue Clients for Nonpayment,” reports that economic pressures accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many law firms into difficult conversations with clients, as they aim to balance flexibility during an economic downturn with their own budgetary constraints. In some instances, the challenge is leading to lawsuits.  Over the last 12 months since the onset of the pandemic, Am Law 200 firms including Blank Rome, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Armstrong Teasdale and Baker McKenzie, among others, have sued clients for allegedly unpaid legal fees, court filings show.

Attorneys who represent law firms in collections disputes say firms are wary to sue clients over unpaid fees because it potentially leaves them vulnerable to counterclaims of legal malpractice.  They say law firms see litigation as a last resort, especially during an economic downturn when flexibility in collections can be key to maintaining solid client relationships.  But law firms are also on alert for exploitation by clients citing the economic tribulation of the last 12 months as a pretext to avoid costs, attorneys say.  Industry leaders also said a large portion of these claims by law firms don’t show up on the public record because the services contracts include an arbitration provision for settling fee disputes.

“As firms become billion-dollar-plus big businesses, they tend to be run more like big billion-dollar-plus businesses,” said Ronald Minkoff, a litigation group partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, who represents law firms in fee collections disputes.  “If they feel that a client is taking advantage of them, they’re much more willing to call the client to account for that.”

Last summer, according to court filings, Buchanan found itself with $2.7 million in outstanding legal fees from Best Medical International, a medical device company that retained Buchanan for patent litigation against alleged infringers in which Buchanan was victorious.  The fee is now the subject of ongoing litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Our cash flow difficulties do indeed continue to make it difficult to pay the Buchanan legal bill which now approaches $2.8 million,” said James Brady, Best Medical’s in-house counsel, in a May 11, 2020, email to Buchanan CEO Joe Dougherty, that was included in court documents.  “We will do everything we can to achieve a reasonable settlement with Varian and Elekta so your firm can be fairly compensated.  We appreciate your willingness to continue the forbearance on any collection efforts and we are hopeful a successful plan will be forthcoming soon.”

Court documents also included a May 12 email reply, in which Dougherty told Brady the firm’s board is “growing impatient with my forbearance on initiating collection efforts.”  Dougherty added Buchanan “is not immune from cash flow challenges these days, and the $2.7 million owed is very significant to us.”  Buchanan has annual revenue around $300 million, according to the most recent ALM data for the firm.

Best Medical took the firm to court in July, alleging it had breached fiduciary duties by failing to provide monthly estimates as promised in their initial contract, which the firm denies.  Court records show Best Medical failed to pay monthly payments from Sept. 23, 2019, through Feb. 11, 2020, citing the opposing parties’ request to stay proceedings and postponing a potential settlement.  Buchanan declined to comment for this story.

Armstrong Teasdale on March 17 filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against former clients, who the firm had represented in multiple lawsuits and in various arbitrations before the American Arbitration Association from October 2018 to October 2020. The suit alleges that the clients owe more than $3.5 million to the firm, plus a 9% annual interest rate.  That amount is equal to 2.3% of the firm’s 2020 revenue of $149.2 million.

In its complaint, Armstrong states the former clients paid legal bills invoiced through July 2019, but alleges that legal bills remain unpaid from then until September 2020, when the clients informed Armstrong they were retaining new counsel.  Armstrong Teasdale declined to comment for this story.  Blank Rome in a Jan. 8 complaint, filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, claimed former clients Joseph Gurwicz and GR Ventures of New Jersey have outstanding legal fees for the firm’s services connected to preparing and filing a provisional patent application.

As of the date of filing, more than 100 invoices dated from Nov. 8, 2017, through Nov. 6, 2019, remain either partially or fully unpaid, the firm alleges.  Of the $485,563 in legal costs incurred by Blank Rome on behalf of their client, the firm claims $187,860.85 have yet to be paid in full.  In addition, Blank Rome said it’s owed an annual accrued interest rate of 6%, bumping the total amount of the firm’s claim to just over $211,000.

Last week the firm opted to withdraw from the case. Blank Rome declined to comment for this story.  In another case, related to a five-figure fee, Baker McKenzie sued former client Catherine Brentzel in June 2020 in D.C. Superior Court.  Last month, the court entered judgment in the amount of $77,325.88 in the law firm’s favor, court records show.

Minkoff said there had been a stigma attached to firms using the court to induce payments from clients, because it might signal poor client relationship management on the part of the law firm.  But that has taken a back seat in recent years due to revenue pressures and stagnant demand, which have been ramped up by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“There were businesses and law firms who were affected by the pandemic in a negative way, and that increased the pressure in these situations,” Minkoff said.  “The Big Law numbers were not usually affected, particularly at the top levels, but the pressures that existed before the pandemic existed during the pandemic and will exist after the pandemic.”  Minkoff said the industry may be in for a rise in the volume of fee collections disputes between firms and their clients, mirroring the uptick that occurred in the mid-2010s.

“Partners are under pressure to bring in as much money as they can, and that has led to more aggressive behavior in terms of fee collections and those kinds of disputes,” Minkoff said.  He added that the rise in fee collections litigation coincides with firm protectionism in partnership agreements.

Expense-related pressures fall on the side of clients, who are sometimes surprised by high litigation fees and prefer to wait for a result to pay.  “The firms are more aggressive, they have more tools at their disposal to get paid, they’re more willing to litigate to get paid, especially if it’s a sort of one-off arrangement,” Minkoff said.  “Clients are faced with this kind of sticker shock.”

Akerman litigation partner Philip Touitou said law firms are even more focused on collections during the pandemic.  He said the crisis has “changed the dynamic” between clients struggling to make payments and law firms, who work to balance accommodations for struggling clients with their own financial pressures to make budget.  Touitou added that flexible fee structures are “here to stay” as law firms work to avoid potential fee disputes from the outset of a client engagement.

“I think the pandemic has only accelerated that effort,” Touitou said. He added that as firms reevaluate their costs after working remotely and cutting travel expenses to zero, they “may be in a better position to offer more flexible [fee] structures.”  “I think the benefits of law firm cost consciousness will work to the benefits of clients,” he said.

Utah Sues Insurer Over Coverage of Defense Fees

February 4, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Daphne Zhang “Utah Asks Insurer To Pay $1.8M Atty Fee in Trade Secrets Suit”, reports that Utah's Department of Administrative Services sued an AIG subsidiary, seeking to compel the carrier to cover the $1.8 million it spent defending Utah State University in an underlying trade secrets suit.  The department told a Utah federal judge that Lexington Insurance Co. breached the insurance contract by refusing to reimburse its legal bills incurred in defending Utah State University Research Foundation against global weather analytics company GeoMetWatch in the underlying suit.

According to the suit, AIG has asserted that the fee incurred by the Utah Attorney General's Office from defending the university in the underlying litigation is defined as "employees salary" under its policy and contended that it will not pay for the state's defense costs.  Utah and its state administrative department said AIG has denied coverage for the underlying defense costs without any written explanation.  The Beehive State is alleging breach of contract and breach of good faith and fair dealing, and asking the court to hold that AIG should cover it in the underlying litigation and pay damages.

The department said its risk management division insures the state of Utah and its agencies for property and personal injury up to $1 million.  The state also held an excess liability policy from Lexington that covers loss once the $1 million primary policy is exhausted.

In March 2018, the division notified AIG that it had incurred over $1.195 million of legal bills in the underlying action and requested reimbursement under the policy.  The federal claims in the underlying case are currently pending in the Tenth Circuit and state claims are pending in Utah state court.  As of the filing of the suit, Utah has incurred over $1.8 million in attorney fees, according to the complaint.

AIG then requested documentation of attorney fees.  The underlying case was under a protective order, requiring the AIG staff to sign a non-disclosure agreement before reviewing the documents.  In November 2018, one of the attorneys representing Utah State University sent AIG the requested documents and reminded AIG to sign the agreement to comply with the protective order.  In May 2019, the division asked AIG to respond to its defense cost claim and made the request again a month later.  In April, the director of the division wrote to AIG regarding its alleged failure to pay the defense costs in the underlying litigation.

Defense Firms and Clients Can Boast About Attorney Fee Wins

January 25, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Christine Simmons, “Both Law Firms and Clients Can Boast About Fee Wins,” reports that, several organizations have reported that, despite the Am Law 200’s worst fears, the legal industry enjoyed growth in 2020.  Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group and Hildebrandt Consulting have projected mid-single digit growth in revenue and mid to high single digit growth in profits. 

Last year, large firms managed to raise rate about 5%, according to James Jones, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Law Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession.  That’s remarkable considering the chaotic and depressing environment of 2020, and even more remarkable that the average annual rate increase for firms since 2008 has been about 3%.

But weren’t general counsel in cost control mode?  After all, according to survey data collected in June 2020 from 223 corporate legal departments, 89% of respondents said controlling outside counsel costs was a high priority.  So what gives?  How could law firms push through high rates at a time of such fee pressure?

Reconciling legal departments’ pressing need to cut costs with law firms’ revenue, profit and rate growth in 2020 requires a closer look at law firm segmentation, sector performance and the trajectory of the year.  But in the legal industry, 2020 is also a story about demand and the benefits of close cooperation on fee agreements, allowing both law firms and legal departments to have some bragging rights.

The Conversation

The lucrative year extended up and down the Am Law 100 and likely into the Second Hundred, but it came at different client relations strategies.  For the elite, rate and fee pressure was so little they could give out double bonuses to associates without billable hour requirements.  Wall Street firms and the Am Law 20 saw the benefit of ‘fight to quality” during an unpredictable year in business.  Meanwhile, some law firms did work with their clients on a mix of fee strategies and arrangements, to the benefit of both.

For instance, at Akerman, ranked No. 88 in the Am Law 100 last year, CEO Scott Meyers said collections remained steady last year, although Akerman worked with its clients to help them meet their own budgets while paying their legal bills.  “We’re close to our clients,” he said.  “We reached out to each one to understand, ‘what’s your financial position?  What’s your cash position?  What can you do, what can’t you do?’”  At the end of the financial year, the firm said it had a 6.5% increase in gross revenue in 2020.

Fee pressure, of course, depends on the industry.  And those with insurance industry clients and municipal clients are among those seeing the most discount pressure.  Mark Thompson, president and CEO of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, said while the firm’s hospital clients have returned to their pre-COVID payment rates, the firms’ base of municipal government clients haven’t yet returned to pre-COVID fee arrangements as a result of financial distress. “That is going to remain a problem going forward,” Thompson said in a Dec. 22 article. 

But nearly all sectors saw pressure in the beginning of the pandemic. At General Motors, the automaker reached out to the 19 firms on its panel of “strategic legal partners.” The second quarter presented an enormous, worrisome question mark, and the automaker—like so many businesses of all sizes—was looking to preserve cash.

GM general counsel Craig Glidden said the company didn’t know what would happen in the auto markets, which meant asking firms for help. And those firms stepped up, agreeing to deferred billing and alternative fee arrangements to relieve some of the company’s pressure.

The Significance

Yes, law departments are seeking high cost savings.  The 2021 Report on the State of the Legal Market from Thomson Reuters and Georgetown Law said spending on outside counsel did, in fact, decrease in the second and third quarters of 2020.  The report said 81% of legal departments found that general enforcement of billing guidelines, including reductions of invoice fees and expenses, was the most effective way to keep billing down.  Meanwhile, 53% of respondents requested standard discounts; 49% of respondents reduced timekeeper rate increases; and 45% used volume discounts.

At the same time work, the report shows that the average daily demand for law firm services per lawyer, based on billable hours, increased in the second half of the year, picking up in November to almost match the previous two year average.  So what happened to the portrait of the general counsel scrutinizing every line item and grilling firms about rate increase and discounts?

That picture is becoming increasingly faint.  Instead, the portrait emerging from 2020 is one of cooperation and demand.  Clients rushed to law firms for urgent legal advice during the pandemic, including counseling for workplace laws, PPP loans, restructuring and data security concerns.  Secondly, the circumstances from the pandemic gave rise to conversations about pricing, driving both sides of the law firm-client relationship to seek common ground—both in the form of tried-and-true alternative fee arrangements and those that reflect a more innovative approach.

Law firms have some leverage.  Just because a client wants a discount doesn’t mean a firm has to provide it.  “Clients understand the difficulty of onboarding new external counsel,” says McKinsey & Co. senior partner Alex D’Amico.  “There’s a real cost to bringing on a new firm.”

Defense Rates Expected to Rise at Lower Pace in 2021

January 15, 2021

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Andrew Maloney, “Rate Pressure and Rising Expenses Are Expected to Challenger Firms in 2021,” reports that law firms may have weathered the COVID-19 financial storm last year, but firm leaders and legal observers say economic pressures could bear down again in 2021, including increased expenses, rate pressure and cash-strapped clients.

Big Law likely won’t be able to count on government loans this time , either.  Overall, firms and analysts are optimistic about business this year.  Firms mostly said they expect a return to some version of normalcy by the second or third quarter of the year, according to a report this week from Thomson Reuters and Georgetown Law’s Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession.

At the same time, the pandemic “is likely to continue to pose economic challenges for law firms” this year, the report said, even as vaccines are being distributed en masse.  “First, it is not clear that the same tools used by firms to address the crisis since March will be as readily available in 2021.  Some law firms may well not enter the new year with the same cash cushions they had from 2019,” the report stated.  It notes many firms used the pandemic to increase billing and collections efforts, and as a consequence, may not have as much on-hand heading into this year as usual.

In addition, there’s growing concern about the ability to raise rates this year, while corporate legal departments, with 2021 budget goals, are looking for areas to trim.  ”It may be harder to implement the same level of rate increases at the end of 2020 that firms enjoyed at the end of 2019,” the authors added.

James Jones, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Law Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession and lead author of the report, said he was “dubious” firms could boost rates at the same level they did last year—about 5%.  The average annual rate increase for firms since 2008 has been about 3%, he said.

Jones also pointed to a recent Thomson Reuters survey of more than 200 legal departments that found about 89% said holding down outside counsel costs was one of their highest priorities for 2021.  He noted that corporations have significantly increased personnel whose job is to oversee outside counsel agreements.  According to Reuters’ Legal Department Operations Index, about 57% of companies had people in those roles in 2019. In 2020 that number shot up to 81%.  “So, given the economic uncertainties and enormous pressure that companies are under, I would be surprised if they sit still for a 5% increase,” Jones said in an interview.

Joshua Lorentz, a partner at Dinsmore & Shohl who chairs the firm’s finance committee, said the firm ended 2020 “on a solid note” and expects 2021 to be a “net gain” for business.  But he said one wrinkle to the budgeting process this year is figuring out where to set rates, as clients try to forecast how much COVID-19 will alter their bottom lines again.  “I don’t know that a majority of companies are asking for discounts, but perhaps discounts for new work, COVID discounts. For some clients, we’re willing to lean into that,” Lorentz said.

He said the firm is evaluating which clients needed breaks in 2020 and having discussions about their projections for 2021.  ”And with all that information, we’re able to see who needs us to lean in, who appears to be weathering the COVID situation.  Then we try to budget conservatively on top of that,” he said.  As an example of that conservative budgeting approach, Lorentz said Dinsmore is preparing this year’s numbers as if expenses such as conferences and business travel will still go forward as they would in a pre-pandemic year.

“And if it ends up that things get canceled in February and March and in the summer, then it’s additional profit for the partnership and the attorneys,” he said.  “But if we don’t budget for it, and things suddenly get clear, it’s tough to go find the money.”

Rising Expenses

The Georgetown and Thomson Reuters report noted that “almost all firms” significantly reduced costs by being more efficient about physical office space, staffing, in-person meetings and business travel in 2020, and such drastic changes could amount to a “tipping point” that permanently alters how firms do business.

Lathrop GPM could be one of those firms. Managing partner Cameron Garrison said this week that while he hopes to have a firmwide return to in-person work later this year, “I do expect that our typical work week may look very different once we return to the office.”  He said in an email that’s a result of the firm likely continuing to leverage remote work options for its staff.

At the same time, for many firms, the savings created through remote work and reduced travel are likely a one-time deal.  “I think the challenge that we’re going to have in 2021 is the very sharp expense reductions that we saw when we went into lockdown.  Those expense reductions—they’re not going to repeat, and we’re going to see our expense numbers rising again,” said Michael McKenney, managing director of Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group.  “So that margin expansion that we saw is unlikely to repeat.”

However, McKenney said many firms are “very, very strong” in terms of how much cash they have on-hand entering 2021.  He noted rate increases have been “very steady” since the financial crisis of 2008, and there are plenty of signs COVID-19 won’t hamstring the market this year the way it did in 2020.  “The outlook, particularly if vaccine distribution is handled better than it has been initially, is for a fairly vigorous rebound in a level of activity,” McKenney said, noting that some of the most leveraged practices that were hit hard almost a year ago are starting to come back.

“We saw corporate M&A shut down, capital markets activity was reduced, litigation was hampered because it was very hard to take depositions.  Juries were not sitting,” he said.  “Those things have begun to reopen, and people are doing them very successfully virtually.  Corporate M&A is back up, capital markets is back up, so many of our leverageable practices—practices that generate strong hours—are coming back.”  Garrison, the Lathrop firm leader, said the long-term economic and societal effects of COVID-19 are still unknown.  But one area that could pick up as a result of economic pain in the short term is pro bono.

“While not an economic challenge, I also believe that firms will be challenged with increased pro bono requests due to an increase in people facing financial hardship,” he said.  “We are very focused on balancing the pro bono time we can offer to support our communities while increasing the support that we add to our clients.”

Insurers Refuse to Pay $18M in Defense Fees in Experian Class Actions

November 19, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Joanne Faulkner, “Insurers Deny Liability in Experian’s $18M Legal Fees Suit,” reports that two insurers have told a London judge they are entitled to refuse to pay Experian's $18 million claim for coverage of its U.S. legal fees in a pair of class actions over errant credit reporting because the litigation stems from deliberate data erasure by staff at the company.  Zurich Insurance PLC and a subsidiary of SCOR said Experian's policy excludes "deliberate acts" such as those that allegedly form the basis of two major class action suits in the U.S., a newly public Nov. 13 defense said, after the company sued to claw back litigation fees.

The claims made against Experian — which said it has racked up millions of dollars in liabilities and legal costs defending the suits — were for statutory damages according to the U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act.  If Experian is liable, it is the result of a "wilful (or reckless) failure on the part of an employee or employees … to comply with the FCRA," the defense said. 

Experian says in its October High Court suit that it paid a class of more than 100,000 payday loan customers $24 million to settle a lawsuit in January brought by lead plaintiff Demeta Reyes.  A $5 million deal was reached with consumers in the so-called Smith action.  The customers said they were harmed by inaccurate reporting of their credit history.  The insurers said that Experian's alleged liability in the Reyes action arises out of the deleting of loan records —  particularly those held by an entity called Delbert Services Corp.  In the Smith action, it is connected to the re-reporting of records relating to loans held by CashCall Inc.  Experian directors were involved in the decision-making in both incidents, the insurers said.

From April 2015 through April 2016, Experian held a complex multitiered insurance "tower" consisting of a primary policy from XL Specialty Insurance Co. and several layers of excess coverage, Experian says.  Zurich and SCOR unit General Security Indemnity Co. of Arizona are each liable for half of a $20 million excess policy, which kicked in once the underlying coverage was depleted, Experian says.  So far the insurers have only paid out a slice of the $20 million excess that Experian says it is entitled to, the company alleges.

Experian is also seeking a declaration from the court that the insurers will cover financial penalties that Experian may have to pay as a result of investigations into a 2015 cyberattack.  The two insurers said that coverage is provided for regulatory fines and penalties, but Experian must prove that any sanction is "lawfully insurable."

Experian says it has run up costs of more than $32 million defending two major related class suits.  Thousands of consumers successfully argued that Experian's failure to delete certain negative information in their consumer credit reports caused them harm.

Experian says it should be able to recover $18 million in legal costs from the insurers under its third-party liability and first-party insurance policies.  The suit also name-checks an action brought by Carolyn Clark alleging the company violated the FCRA, which ended up costing Experian more than $21 million. The company says it could be entitled to an indemnity of $14.3 million from the insurers to cover the costs from that case.