There is a reason why lawyers are unpopular with some folks. Above the Law reports one such instance. A large New York law firm accepted a case regarding a landlord tenant issue because the tenant is the son of the founder of Actelion, a Swiss company. The firm, Mayer Brown, is one of the largest law firms in the world with offices in the Americas, Europe and Asia (what? not Australia?). The client was not being billed – he was considered a "friend of the firm." Yet, when the tenant won his tenant landlord dispute, the law firm requested attorney’s fees.
It is true that "friend of the firm" lawsuits regularly require large firms to learn new areas of law very quickly. The firm recovered the tenant’s security deposit of $6,400. Good job. But, they submitted a request for $126,026.88 in attorney’s fees and costs. The judge said this was an "incredible" amount for a landlord tenant dispute and refused to award any attorney fees, at all. See decision.
Note that the judge points out such discrepancies as billing 4 hours at rates of $405/hour and higher to read simple court procedural rules and basic rules regarding security deposits. As the court rightly notes, reading simple local rules unique to each court should take mere minutes. And, that is just not something a client should not have to pay for. The court addresses an important issue in lawyer billing. A client has a right to expect a certain baseline knowledge by any lawyer.
The client should not have to pay for the legal education of a lawyer. Some of that education is simple cost of doing business, especially when a lawyer enters a new area of law. Some lawyers refer to that practice as "going to school on the client’s dollar." It is not ethical. This is particularly true when the law firm, by its own admission, did not bill the client and represented the client to build "good will." The firm doubtless hoped for some future legal business from Actelion.
The associates on the $6400 matter charged $405/hour. A more senior associate charged $615/hour. And, a partner was billing at $895/hour.
The Judge makes an appropriate observation: merely reading court rules is not legal research. Yes, a lawyer can and should bill for legal research. But, reading legal rules (i.e., local rules of court) is not legal research. It only takes minutes to read pertinent portions of the court’s local rules.
On Feb. 17, 2012, some part of 4.25 hours was spent revising a draft complaint. Again, on Feb. 23, 2012, some part of 4.5 hours was spent revising the same complaint – although this time, it was based on "additional factual information and legal research." The judge found those entries duplicative with no apparent reason for duplicating prior work. And, I am sure the judge was also troubled that some eight hours were spent drafting a rather simple complaint.
After the civil court complaint had been drafted, another seven hours were devoted to reviewing emails and documentation regarding the security deposit – at the rate of $405/hour. The court found that it "defies the imagination" how a lawyer could spend seven hours reviewing one security deposit when the receipt was in the possession of the law firm from the beginning. Apparently, the evidence for the "security deposit" was nothing more than a receipt. How could it take seven hours to review one security deposit receipt?
The Judge said the matter at trial would last no more than 60 minutes. Yet, on March 12, 13, 14 and 27, 2012, the associate spent 4.25 hours researching and discussing trial strategy with her client. Over four hours discussing strategy for a less than one hour trial? Please.
There are more such entries. Suffice it to say that the firm over-billed. But, why did it over-bill? Large firms are infamous for requiring an excruciating level of knowledge by any associate who briefs the most trivial matter to a senior lawyer. The associate is expected to understand many issues, however trivial regarding a particular legal matter. The system is designed to avoid any error. But, the system, as it exists in the largest firms, is bloated and requires many duplicative tasks. Associate lawyers do often over-research simply to avoid being asked a question for which they do not have an answer. Woe to the associate who does not know the answer to the senior partner’s most trivial question. And, too many clients happily pay for that excess research and repetitive preparation even for a $6400 matter.