The District Court of Massachusetts recently cut an attorneys’ fee request by 83%. In Joyce v. Town of Dennis, 2011 WL 2632148 (D.Mass.) , the court ruled that the requested fees were completely out of line and cut them by $137,855. The court affirmed a number of growing positions on what constitutes unacceptable legal billing practices, which are worth noting here
Excessive time for described tasks
The court reaffirmed the proposition that attorneys cannot bill excessive time for a task. In this case, the attorneys’ had billed 55 hours for a summary judgment motion, 70 hours on the opposition to defendant’s summary judgment motion, 28 hours on the petitions for fees and injunctive relief, 36 hours on attorney conferencing, and 30 hours apiece for two experienced trial lawyers to attend the entire trial. When an attorney charges excessive time for performing a task, the client is under no obligation to pay for the work. An attorney should charge the appropriate amount of time for every task, regardless of whether or not they feel they could be paid for performing that task in a longer amount of time.
Duplication of effort
The 30 hours of billing per attorney to attend trial was also viewed as a duplication of efforts, which is something that again client’s are under no obligation to pay for. While some cases may be complex enough to require that two attorneys be present, this case was viewed by the judge as a relatively simple matter, and thus the duplication of the attorneys’ attendance at trial was an unnecessary expense.
The judge in the case also cast doubt upon the motives of the attorneys in their billing. In separate instances, the court implied that the two attorneys billed at such a high amount because they assumed that the defendant would be paying legal costs; the court also speculated that the frequent conferences may have been the result of bickering over media exposure, and not for legally compensable costs.
Use of attorney billing guidelines, per industry best practices could have avoided, or at least provided a remedy for, such flagrant abuses. The case speaks to attorneys by making sure they comply with ethical billing guidelines, but clients should ensure that their written retainer agreements and billing guidelines provide an opportunity for recourse and a clear explanation of what is expected from the attorney.