September 17, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver
Is your lawyer billing honestly for time spent on the case or is the bill being padded? Are there tell-tale warning signs that you are being taken for a ride?
In addition to actual attorney bills sent to us by readers, this story was possible through the help of Los Angeles-based husband and wife legal team, Aaron Shechet, Leigh Chandler, and from San Francisco, John O’Connor. All three lawyers are experts in law firm billing practices and fee disputes.
Eureka reader Doris sent us a bill from an attorney her family hired for a complicated probate and trust matter. The lawyer has two experienced, full-time paralegals who handle all document preparation and court filings.
Yet, of his $12,000 bill, $7,500 was under the headings, “Review File, Approve Paralegal Work, and Document Review.”
“After every task performed by a paralegal,” Doris observed, “the attorney billed the same amount of time as the paralegal to ‘Review and Approve.’ Often brief correspondence — three or four paragraphs — would be emailed to him (we got a bcc) but he billed 45 minutes each time to ‘Review Email.’ Each phone call we placed to his office or received — from him or a paralegal — was billed 30 minutes at his hourly rate even if we spoke for less than a minute!
“Also, every week he charged one hour to ‘Review Entire File.’ Isn’t much of this excessive and double billing?” she asked.
You bet it is!
“An extraordinary amount of work under the headings ‘Document Review,’ ‘Review File’ or ‘Review and Approve Paralegal Work’ shows at least a high degree of inefficiency, and at worst, it’s bill-padding,” O’Connor observes.
He asks, “Why even have a paralegal do the work if you, the lawyer, are charging the same amount of time?”
Agreeing with O’Connor, Shechet commented that, “If you have a slow moving case, it can be appropriate to review the file every so many months, just to be sure that you are current. But weekly, and for an hour each time? This is sounds excessive and could be disallowed if the client challenged the bill in fee arbitration.”
Leigh noted that “Where you have repetitive tasks such as reading an email or phone calls, and they are all billed the same amount even though the actual time spent varies widely, this is another warning sign and a client should challenge it.
“It is a good idea to keep your own time record of all conversations with the lawyer’s office, date, time, subject and time spent on the phone, and never be afraid to politely question a bill.”
Just imagine bringing a relative with a bad case of acne to a dermatologist and getting a bill which stated, “Research how to treat acne.” You would think, “This is crazy! A dermatologist is supposed to know those things already! I am not paying for that!” And you would be right.
When San Luis Obispo reader “Shawn” learned that a former employee — in violation of his non-competition contract — was trying to steal customers. He hired a “a law firm which had two lawyers — according to their website — who specialized in these types cases.”
“I could not believe their first bill which stated, ‘Research into Unfair Competition and Restraining Orders, four hours.’ Can they charge me for something that is a major part of their practice, which they should already know? My gut feeling tells me this is bill padding.”
To O’Connor, “This raises an issue of bill padding and your reader is absolutely justified in being upset as there is some reason to doubt that any ‘basic research’ was done on his case. Some matters will require a considerable amount of legal research — even for lawyers who specialize in a certain area —but Shawn is describing a bill that is highly suspicious and should be questioned.”
“A proper bill will be itemized, showing what was done and the time spent on each task.
” ‘Block Billing’ lumps together many activities but does not break them down into specific tasks or the time used, such as: ‘Worked on file, read correspondence, drafted response, did legal research, total time six hours.’ This suggests a padded bill.
“Courts reject these bills, we as fee arbitrators do as well, and clients should insist on detailed billings,” Schechet recommends.
An attorney since 1972, O’Connor has seen, “more examples of excessive billing than I care to imagine. Clients must carefully read and never fear questioning their attorney’s bill. When lawyers know someone is looking over their shoulder, we have found that fewer games are played.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.