Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes

The NALFA

News Blog

Category: Staffing Issues

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.

Saxena White Secures $40.5M in Fees in DaVita Investor Settlement

July 16, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Katryna Perera, “DaVita Investor Attys Score $40.5M in Fees From Settlement”, reports that the law firms that represented investors in a case against health care company DaVita Inc. were awarded $40.5 million for their work on a $135 million class-action settlement of claims that shareholders were hurt when it was revealed that the company pressured patients to enroll in high-cost, private insurance plans.  U.S. District Judge William Martinez of the District of Colorado awarded attorney fees of 30% of the settlement fund as well as reimbursement of $547,409.27 in litigation expenses and $10,000 in representative rebates after the lead plaintiffs requested it.

Attorneys from Saxena White PA and Shuman Glenn & Stecker represented the plaintiffs, led by the Peace Officers' Annuity and Benefit Fund of Georgia and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund.  Judge Martinez said the attorney fees would be calculated using a percentage rather than the lodestar approach because the case is a common fund case.

In his order, Judge Martinez mentioned the "extensive and extremely comprehensive investigation" the attorneys conducted and how time-consuming the settlement negotiations were.  Over four years of litigation, the lead counsel expended more than 31,000 hours, equivalent to $14.7 million in attorney and staff time, the judge said.  Additionally, the lead counsel will continue to work and incur out-of-pocket expenses in connection with the distribution of the settlement, now that it has received final approval, Judge Martinez noted.

A 30% award fee is typical even in "megafund" settlements, the judge said, and he noted the prominence of the $135 million resolution, calling it an "exceptional" monetary result.  "The $135 million recovery represents the second-largest all-cash securities class action recovery ever obtained in this district, is among the top five such settlements in Tenth Circuit history, and is more than 20 times larger than the $6.7 million median for securities class action settlements in the Tenth Circuit from 2010 to 2019," Judge Martinez said.

The judge also pointed out the risk that law firms take with class actions, as there is no guarantee of success.  "To date, lead counsel has received no compensation for its prosecution of this case, and since the extensive commitment of time and resources devoted here necessarily entailed the preclusion of other projects, the primary focus of this factor is to acknowledge this incongruence by permitting a higher recovery to compensate for the risk of recovering nothing," he said.

Quinn Emanuel Defends Billing Practices, Expenses

May 5, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Rachel Schart, “MiMedx Slams Quinn Emanuel Fees As 2 Other Firms Settle,” reports that MiMedx has accused Quinn Emanuel of seeking unreasonable fees, including for lawyers' luxury hotel stays and fine dining, as part of the cost of defending two former company executives who were convicted of securities fraud.  The allegation, in court papers, comes after the life sciences company settled claims with two other law firms seeking payment of fees as part of the same dispute.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Kobre & Kim LLP initially filed suit in New York state court on April 15 alleging MiMedx Group Inc. shirked its obligations to indemnify the firms' clients, company President William Taylor and ex-CEO Parker "Pete" Petit.  Both men were sentenced to a year in prison in February after being convicted of one of two counts each at trial.

Freshfields and Kobre & Kim said in court filings that they had settled their claims against MiMedx.  Without disclosing the terms, the firms wrote in similar notices that their "claims in this proceeding do not make, and never were intended to make, a charge of deception against MiMedx or its general counsel, Butch Hulse, and that the filed action in this matter was a good faith fee dispute, which now has been swiftly and amicably resolved."

But Quinn Emanuel has yet to drop its claims in the lawsuit, and MiMedx took aim at the law firm in an answer filed in a related Florida state court legal fee dispute with the former executives.  In response to the men's counterclaims seeking additional fees to appeal their convictions, MiMedx accused Quinn Emanuel of overbilling Petit and Taylor and then unfairly attempting to collect from the company.

"Quinn Emanuel will have to explain its billing and expense practices," MiMedx wrote.  "These include staffing its trial team with over ten professionals, mostly from out-of-town despite having a large New York office within a few miles of the courthouse; staying in a luxury boutique hotel; having meals catered by a Michelin-starred chef (and supplementing them with separate orders of crab legs and sushi to boot); and charging MiMedx tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on a 'last-minute' motion to adjourn the trial that the court found 'border[ed] on the frivolous.'"

MiMedx said Quinn Emanuel has refused to provide it with invoices for its expenses in the case, and that it and the other criminal defense firms have already been paid more than $18 million for their work defending the former executives.  MiMedx's counsel told Law360 that the company has indemnified its former executives where required, but that the law firms can't force it to pay unwarranted fees.  "The company has been reasonable.  It paid pursuant to the indemnity," said Louis M. Solomon of Reed Smith LLP.  "It always reserved the right to make sure that the fees were reasonable, and even now with the convictions in place, we're not obliged to advance any more costs."

Quinn Emanuel's in-house counsel defended the firm's billing practices to Law360.  "Quinn Emanuel tried this case during the pandemic and achieved an acquittal for its client on the most serious count," Marc Greenwald, who is representing the law firm in the New York case, said.  "Quinn Emanuel expects to get paid at the rates that MiMedx agreed, and our work was outstanding.  All the charges were appropriate and reasonable."

MiMedx lodged its Florida state court claims against Petit and Taylor in January seeking permission to stop indemnifying the former executives upon sentencing, as well as reimbursement for millions of dollars in already paid fees.  Petit and Taylor fired back with counterclaims soon after they were sentenced, arguing in April that the company must continue indemnifying them in the upcoming appeal.  Quinn Emanuel, Freshfields and Kobre & Kim filed their separate New York state court suit in April, alleging that MiMedx has violated its contractual duty to pay Petit and Taylor's criminal defense costs.

Facebook Challenges $12M Fee Request in Data Breach Case

March 11, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Hailey Konnath, “Facebook Slams $12M Atty Fees Request in Data Breach Row, reports that Facebook opposed a $12 million attorney fees request from counsel representing users who settled a dispute with the company over a 2018 cyberattack, slamming the lawyers for accruing a hefty bill while pursuing claims that didn't win money for their clients.  The users sued Facebook Inc. in California federal court alleging it negligently allowed the cyberattack, which affected roughly 29 million individuals.  The social media giant and the class of users reached a nonmonetary settlement resolving the case last year, and U.S. District Judge William Alsup gave it his blessing in November.

Under the deal, Facebook agreed to reform its security protocols but not to pay monetary damages.  The users' attorneys at Tadler Law LLP, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and Morgan & Morgan Complex Litigation Group asked for $12 million in fees and costs, including a $2.1 million bonus.  But Facebook said in its opposition that such a request for a settlement that yielded no monetary recovery to the class is not supported by law.  In just over 16 months, the users' attorneys managed to assemble a "very sizable bill" that they now ask be paid without scrutiny, according to Facebook's motion.

Notably, the class' attorneys have refused to provide project-level or even chronological time records, Facebook said.  But even the figures they have submitted show the dispute wasn't handled efficiently, it argued.  Facebook said that more than 100 timekeepers from 17 different firms billed the matter, with partners billing for tasks like "document management."

"This top-heavy staffing yields a blended hourly rate that is 35.8% higher than the average awarded in other recent data breach settlements, and stands in stark contrast to the court's instructions," Facebook said.  The company added that "there can be no doubt that substantial swaths of [the class counsel's] litigation efforts were unsuccessful." 

Named plaintiffs in the case went from 17 to one, only two out of 10 claims survived Facebook's dismissal bid, a star identify theft expert was struck from the record and no damages class was certified, Facebook said.  "Any award to class counsel should be commensurate with the reasonable level of effort necessary to secure the specific settlement achieved here -- and should not reward wasteful efforts that did not benefit the class," it 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.