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Category: Litigation Management

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.

Insurer Overpaid Policyholder’s Attorney Fees, Judge Finds

August 25, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Daphne Zhang, “Insurer Overpaid For Policyholder’s Legal Bills, Judge Finds,” reports that a New York federal judge said that an insurer's decision to stop paying a GoPro accessory maker's attorney fees was reasonable, finding the policyholder's defense counsel billed administrative work at partner rates and logged excessive working hours.  U.S. District Judge Mae D'Agostino denied 360Heros Inc.'s motion for summary judgment against Main Street America Assurance Co., saying the carrier's payment of more than $2 million in attorney fees fully satisfied its defense obligations.

The judge sided with Main Street in finding that 360Hero's defense counsel, Gauntlett & Associates, repeatedly charged "unreasonable and excessive" legal fees in an underlying patent infringement suit with GoPro.  The camera company sued 360Heros alleging the harness maker used its copyrighted pictures and infringed two of its trademarks.  The suit was settled in May 2018. 360Heros sued Main Street in 2017 after the insurer stopped paying for its defense costs.

"Based on Gauntlett's repeated practice of billing excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary hours the court finds that a 15% reduction in Gauntlett's fees is warranted," the judge said.  According to the order, a Main Street attorney found in 2017 that the insurer overpaid for defense costs after retroactively reviewing the payment history.  Main Street subsequently stopped paying the policyholder's legal bills, which 360Hero claimed violated its insurance policy.  "The amount of unpaid fees is significantly less than the amount that the court finds were reasonably expended," Judge D'Agostino found, saying that Main Street was fully entitled not to pay because the defense counsel overcharged on legal bills.

Some of Gauntlett's invoices were billed without any tasks designated to a paralegal, the judge pointed out, and the firm repeatedly charged administrative work at partner rates. Gauntlett also charged full rates for travel, which should have been billed at half of their hourly rates, Judge D'Agostino said.  "For travel to a one-day out-of-town settlement conference, [one Gauntlett attorney] billed for $418.48 in meals," she said.

$4.8M Fee Award to Fenwick in Patent Litigation

March 3, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Hailey Konnath, “Fenwick Lands $4.6M in Fees in Amazon-PersonalWeb IP Fight, reports that the Fenwick & West LLP team representing Amazon in PersonalWeb's failed patent infringement dispute with the online retail giant will come away with a hefty $4.6 million in attorney fees plus an additional $203,000 in court costs, a California federal judge ruled.  Software developer PersonalWeb Technologies LLC took Amazon and several of its customers to court over its cloud-based storage system, which PersonalWeb claimed infringed several of its patents.  But Amazon prevailed in the dispute, with the court ruling that the claims were barred because they were the same allegations the developer previously brought and lost against Amazon.

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman approved Amazon's request for attorney fees in October, slamming the litigation as "objectively baseless."  The judge declined to determine the amount at that time, but deemed the case "exceptional."  Amazon had asked for $6.4 million in fees and court costs, a bill that PersonalWeb challenged.  Judge Freeman held that Amazon's attorneys were entitled to $4.62 million of that for their more than 9,260 hours of work on the case.

Notably, the judge reduced Amazon's requested case management fees; its fees for investigating and responding to PersonalWeb's claims; and work on its own suit against PersonalWeb, among a few other areas.  "The time that Amazon spent on the declaratory judgment complaint cannot solely be traced to PersonalWeb's misconduct," Judge Freeman said.

She also chopped about $100,000 from Amazon's court costs request, saying that some of its costs entries are redacted and that it was seeking costs for experts who didn't do work that was within the scope of an "exceptional case."  Judge Freeman rejected PersonalWeb's contention that Amazon's fee request should see a 50% to 75% cut, saying the 75% reduction in particular "borders on ridiculous."  PersonalWeb had argued that Fenwick had engaged in "unreasonable billing," misallocation of resources and bringing too many attorneys to depositions.

But Fenwick's records indicate that only one or two attorneys attended depositions, the judge said.  "And although the court is often skeptical of the value of incessant meetings involving multiple attorneys, PersonalWeb's expert has done nothing more than provide stock criticism of the meeting and conference hours without identifying any specific irregularities," the judge said.

Law Firm Billing Tips For Good Client Relations

December 1, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Aebra Coe, “Law Firm Billing Tips For Avoiding An Irate Client,” reports that a recent lawsuit filed against K&L Gates LLP by a client unhappy with a legal bill highlights some common pitfalls that law firms face when it comes to billing practices, but there are ways to avoid a similar situation, experts say.  The lawsuit against K&L Gates, which was filed in August by Chicora Life Center LC, accuses the firm of using several tactics to increase its bill for representing the bankrupt medical center in a Chapter 11 proceeding over a lease termination dispute.

Some of the alleged billing practices are not entirely uncommon among law firms, according to two experts who declined to comment directly on the lawsuit but provided their thoughts on client billing more generally.  The alleged practices include "block billing," where a lawyer "blocks" together a number of tasks over a set amount of hours; "hoarding," when an overqualified lawyer with a high billing rate retains work rather than passing it on to someone with a lower billing rate; and "multibilling," which occurs when multiple attorneys are tasked with performing the same work.

"All of those things mentioned have been going on for years and years.  This is not at all new," said James Wilbur, an expert on law firm billing at consulting firm Altman Weil Inc.  Regardless of how the K&L Gates suit shakes out in court, other law firms are likely looking for ways to avoid being in a similar position.  While such situations are not entirely preventable because clients can sometimes file bad-faith suits, there are steps firms can take to ensure clients are as happy as possible with a bill at the conclusion of a matter, Wilbur said.

He suggested firms rely on three things to accomplish this: technology, training and collaboration.  E-billing software can often catch double billing and block billing, he said, as well as phrases that might irk a client, like "reviewed phone notes," that may not indicate that the time spent added any value to the matter.

And that leads to training, which should be conducted at all levels on a regular basis so that any attorney or paralegal who puts together a bill is aware of best practices and is skilled in conveying the value brought to the client via the time the individual spent working, he said.  Senior attorneys billing for work that could be done by someone more junior is another beast, Wilbur said, and one that law firm management must work to dissuade by encouraging collaboration and the sharing of work.

Clients have many different rules when it comes to fees, but "no surprises" is a big one, said Toby Brown, chief practice management officer at Perkins Coie LLP.  "The bottom-line answer is more transparency.  And more real-time updates about what's going on," Brown said.  "The lawyers are uncomfortable talking about these things, and so they don't talk about them head-on."

He said lawyers and clients can often get wrapped up in the legal issues at hand, with fee issues taking a back seat.  For example, if the volume of discovery in a major case increases substantially, a conversation on cost might not always occur, but it should, he said.  Real-time sharing of information on the cost of a matter is vital, Brown said.  He said his firm has worked to incorporate the help of its project management team to flag when the scope of a matter has changed so that the attorney on the matter is aware a conversation is needed.

The firm has also implemented technology that goes beyond basic e-billing software to allow attorneys to better monitor their budget on a matter, he said.  Ultimately, according to Wilbur, having a strong relationship with a client to begin with will go a long way.

"Even in a firm that's highly ethical and has training around these issues, mistakes are going to happen. Something is going to creep through," he said.  "The first thing is you have to have a good enough relationship with the client so they know they can text or email you, pick up the phone and point out a problem in the bill, and you will deal with it without arguing."

When contacted by Law360 for comment about its case, K&L Gates described Chicora's claims as "a transparent attempt to re-litigate issues that were raised and rejected years ago through final orders in a concluded bankruptcy."  A third-party fee examiner, it said, expressly found that the fees requested by the firm were reasonable and should be recoverable, and then the bankruptcy court adopted that determination.  "We are confident the present claims also will be rejected," the firm said.

Article: Five Cost-Cutting Strategies for Corporate Legal Departments

October 22, 2020

A recent Law.com article by Nathan Wenzel of SimpleLegal Inc., “5 Cost-Cutting Strategies For Corporate Legal Department,” reports on legal cost measures for corporate legal departments.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Corporate legal departments have long been focused on reducing legal spending.  The emphasis on cost-cutting has only increased in 2020 as the economic uncertainties of the pandemic have caused companies to scrutinize expenses across the board.

According to a recent report from the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, 61 cents of every dollar spent on legal costs in 2020 goes to external legal costs — a 15-cent increase from 2018.  This uptick, combined with the year's novel challenges, has many legal departments looking for new ways to control legal expenses beyond reviewing line items, which has proven to be ineffective for many companies.

While there's been a lot of chatter in the industry about the need to switch to fixed fees or alternative fee arrangements to reduce costs, these shifts have been slow to take hold.  They're also difficult to measure if we retain a focus on the billable hour.

When clients ask firms for fixed fees but also request the hours worked so they "know that the fixed fee was the right price," then we haven't really made the change to fixed fees.  It is a difficult transition and one that will take time.  We should always push toward better alignment of price and value, but we need to balance near-term realities with long-term goals.

In the near term, we need to control costs — even if that only means focusing on hourly rates.  In the long term, we need to align the work to the right types of providers at the right price, where price has very little connection to hourly rates.  No one wants to buy time.  We want outcomes, not hours.

To solve for both the short-term and long-term goals, we start with data.  Analyzing and reducing your legal spending start with asking yourself the following questions:

What am I spending now, on what and with which providers?
How does my current spending compare to past spending?
How am I allocating my legal work?
What metrics am I using to measure cost control?
Are there other cost considerations I'm overlooking?

1.  Understand where you are now.

The first step of implementing a change is to understand the current state. Reducing legal spending first requires knowing where you are right now.  This means not only keeping up with the total dollar figure of your spending, but how much you're spending in each practice area and with which law firms or providers.

Don't forget to also investigate the work you currently perform in-house.  With an understanding of outside legal spend and in-house legal work, you will have the current picture of how you allocate the demand for legal services from the business to the supply of legal services you have available.  With this deeper insight, you'll start to see where you can actually have an impact on spending.

Without this data, you risk investing time into an area that looks compelling but won't create real savings.  For example, reducing money spent on compliance may seem like a good idea because the partners at your primary firm have very high billing rates.  But if only 5% of your annual spending goes toward compliance work or if the primary compliance firm effectively leverages associates and paralegals, your efforts won't translate into real savings for the business.

When you track data and analyze legal spending details from your e-billing system, you'll be better equipped to start a real conversation about reductions.  You can identify the practice areas and firms where your efforts will create real returns.

2.  Compare now to where you used to be.

Your business is not static.  It's important to understand where you are today, but it is even more important to understand how things change over time. After you determine where you're spending your money today, you need to compare those numbers to what you were doing last year or the last time you negotiated rates and pricing.

You may have a reliable history of sending work to a single attorney or team at a firm. You may have increased the amount of work sent to a particular firm or in a particular practice area.  If you used to send $2 million worth of business to a firm and now spend $5 million with that firm, that's a powerful position for starting rate and price negotiations.

Additionally, if your team uses multiple firms for similar work, you may benefit from consolidating that work with fewer preferred firms.  Larger companies may go through a formal panel selection process annually or every few years.  A preferred panel is a great tool to provide the best legal services to the business at the best price if you have the team and time to implement this type of program.  But you can still achieve the benefits of allocating work to fewer firms without a full preferred panel program.

You don't always know what the demand for legal services will be from year to year.  But if your data shows that you have a history of allocating work among several firms, ask those firms what they would be willing to do to earn a greater share of that work.

3. Understand how you're allocating work.

After you have an understanding of the dollar value of your legal spending, you need to know how you're allocating different types of work, to whom and why. How you're assigning your legal work certainly depends on finding the provider with the right expertise but should be equally dependent on its business impact and complexity.

Your high-impact, high-complexity work probably belongs with the more expensive firms.  An example of a high-impact matter could be a large litigation that threatens the balance sheet of the company.  Or it might be a patent for the core technology driving your business.  In either case, you might choose to work with the very best money can buy.

Every year the legal press makes a big deal about high billable rates for eye-catching headlines.  But for your highest-impact and highest-complexity work, those firms and lawyers are probably a bargain at twice the price.  You're buying outcomes, not hours.

Too many companies simply send the rest of their work along with their high-impact work without stopping to see if smaller matters would be better handled by a lower-cost provider.  There are a variety of suppliers beyond the Am Law 100, such as specialty firms, alternative legal service providers, nonlegal consultants and your in-house team.

Your low-impact, low-complexity work probably doesn't need to go to the premier firms.  Specialty firms, alternative legal service providers, consultants and solo practitioners may not have massive staff and unlimited support resources, but they can still provide high-quality work at a fraction of the price.

You may also have high-impact but routine work where speed and a deep understanding of business issues are important.  The most common example here is commercial contracts.

For customer contracts, any delay in reviewing costs the company revenue. An extensive back-and-forth over mundane legal minutiae could cause your company to miss a quarter's revenue target.  In-house teams will have a better understanding of business priorities and can better deliver the right kind of legal work with speed at the right price.

When you satisfy your demand with the right mix of supply, the potential for savings is much greater than through rate discounts alone.  Allocating work based on impact and complexity provides far greater cost savings than a 10% rate reduction when the right provider is already half the price.

4. Use the right metrics.

You can't manage what you can't measure.  You get what you incentivize.  These two classic business statements tell us that we need to measure savings with the right metrics.

How are you measuring cost savings today?  Is it through average hourly rates?  Adjustments to bills based on guidelines?  If you measure discounts on rates to determine savings, you're going to focus on high hourly rate firms that discount their hour rates.  But is that really saving your company any money?

Achieving savings by reallocating work rather than by negotiating rate discounts definitely makes sense.  But with the wrong metrics it is harder for the C-suite to understand what you've accomplished.  If you measure and report savings only as the discount on standard rates, the reallocation effort appears to have achieved nothing.  In fact, if the work was moved in-house or to a provider with a lower but not discounted rate, it may appear that you have lost savings because you won't have a discount to report.

In fact, with the wrong metrics, if you were to implement a routing tool for automated nondisclosure agreement review, it might appear to be a driver of cost even if it created hard dollar savings from external counsel and soft dollar savings — i.e., efficiencies — from allowing in-house counsel to spend time on high-impact, high-complexity work.  With the right metrics, you can show the true return on these investments.

To demonstrate the full value of the savings and quality initiatives, you might need to use new metrics.  I am certainly not advocating for cherry-picking data or choosing vanity metrics.  To the contrary, the right metrics will actually make more sense to the business, the CEO and the board.

Legal expense as a percentage of revenue has been promoted in Association of Corporate Counsel benchmarking studies and Altman Weil Inc. surveys. It is well understood and trusted by chief financial officers and CEOs.

Whichever metrics are used to measure legal cost controls, just remember that you get what you incentivize.  If you're going to achieve cost savings, you need to use the right metrics to incentivize your team and showcase results.

5. Monitor compliance with your billing guidelines, consider automation of certain legal tasks and standardize workflows.

The preceding four steps are the critical actions that build on each other to significantly trim legal spending.  It's a journey.  You don't need to take all the steps all at once to achieve results.  Alongside those major considerations, there are a couple other things to keep in mind to run alongside those longer-term initiatives.

The first is billing guidelines.  Your billing guidelines let your firms know what it means to be a good legal partner to your department and a good business partner to your company.

Guidelines often devolve into rules about copy charges and not billing excessively for underqualified people — things your firms probably already do on their own to better serve their clients.  You should always be monitoring compliance with your billing guidelines and enforcing timekeeper rates, but it is important to remember that ensuring that your firms only bill for work in accordance with your guidelines isn't actual savings — it only prevents overcharging.

Another way to reduce legal costs and improve response time is to automate low-complexity, low-impact legal tasks and standardize workflows.  Automation of basic document review by artificially intelligent contract review tools can be a big time and money saver.  As an example, nondisclosure agreements are high-volume but typically low-impact documents that can be reviewed with the help of AI-enabled tools.

In addition to automation, standardized playbooks designed by the legal team to give other departments a checklist of items to review can also help improve turnaround time and reduce costs.  For example, a sourcing manager in a procurement department could be given a checklist of five or six specific business and legal terms to review before sending to the legal team.

Automation and standardization improve speed of delivery and reduce cost of delivery for the business.

The Path to Lower Legal Spending

It's time to shift the perspective on cost reduction beyond hourly rates and copy charges.  As legal departments, you need to look at where you are now, how that compares to the past, how you're allocating your work and whether you're using the right legal spending metrics to achieve real savings.  These steps with effective legal billing guidelines, automation and standardization provide the foundation to match your company's demand for legal services to the right legal service providers to trim your spending while improving delivery.

Nathan Wenzel is co-founder at SimpleLegal Inc.