July 25, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver

For a law student driven to succeed, summer is no time to kick back. Instead, you want a job as law clerk which, for most is a real eye opener. Working with lawyers, meeting clients — and discovering the enormous time demands — quickly removes any sense of glamour about the law as depicted on TV or in the movies.

“Working in a good office, with competent, ethical attorneys, that summer job will hopefully become a thrilling confirmation that becoming a lawyer was indeed the right choice,” observes Professor Rose Safarian of the San Joaquin College of Law in Fresno.

And when it’s not a good office? Where the interests of the client come last?

That’s what Hanford reader, “William” would discover weeks into his summer job at a small Los Angeles law firm.

“After landing this summer clerkship,” a very nervous William told You and the Law, “I was assigned to work with one of the partners. Of course, during the interview, I heard the right things — that they are all about helping their clients — but it didn’t take long before I learned the truth.

“A few days ago, pizza and bottles of wine were delivered late in the day, turning the office into a frat house with the partners quickly becoming totally plastered, and joking about the ways to pad a client’s bill.

“My drunken boss said, ‘Willie, take notes on what we are telling you, because this is how to make money in law.’ I truly thought they were just kidding, but did take notes, which included:

  1. Your time is billed at the lawyer’s $250 hourly rate, not the $30 we pay you.
  2. With slow moving cases, we bill a monthly 30 minute File Review Fee, but seldom look at the files.
  3. We bill for more time than is actually worked and expect a minimum of 15 hours a day from lawyers and law clerks. If we spend one hour in court for three different clients, we bill each the entire hour. It’s wrong, but they never find out.
  4. Clients are billed for our entire cost of doing business-overhead–including: rent, heating and A/C, secretarial/receptionist time, computerized research even though we just pay a flat fee monthly. We also factor in an added percent for profit.
  5. Every phone call — no matter how brief — is billed at least for half an hour of the lawyer’s time. If a client calls to complain about a bill, add that in as well!

‘It wasn’t drunken talk – They were doing all those things’

“Mr. Beaver, I just could not believe they were serious. However, the next day, I found a bill where my time was in fact charged at the lawyer’s rate. I began looking at other files, learning that it was not just drunken talk, but they were doing all of those things. The written retainer agreements clients signed did not authorize any of those charges.

“I just finished my first year of law school, and have not yet taken the course in Professional Responsibility/Legal Ethics, but feel this cannot be right. I don’t need a job badly enough to do unethical things. Reading your column since I was in high school greatly influenced my decision to become a lawyer. Now, I need your advice. Thank you, William. ”

Uncomfortable? Get out of there! – Your reputation is at risk

Professor Safarian complimented our reader’s sense of right and wrong and that, “He is reaching out for advice about this completely unacceptable situation — many of these things amount to billing fraud,” she stressed.

“When an attorney spends five minutes on the phone, it is unethical – plain wrong and illegal – to bill for 30 minutes, as it is to charge for reviewing a file you haven’t looked at, or pass along (and make a profit on) office overhead expenses.

“A lawyer’s most valuable quality is reputation, which starts the first day of law school. No job is worth putting your reputation at risk, and remaining employed by an unethical law firm when you know what’s going on is a bad idea.

“Young lawyers need to ask themselves how they want to be seen by their friends, colleagues, and clients.

“Fortunately, the vast majority of lawyers do not engage in this type of activity, and what he describes is the perfect example of how to get in trouble with the State Bar.

“William is clearly uncomfortable, and I would recommend that he get out of there immediately,” Professor Safarian concluded.

Clients have more power than they realize, and next time we will look at ways to minimize the chances of being taken advantage of by an unethical lawyer.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.