Calculating Rates for Legal Services

The June 16, 2006 edition of the ABA Journal e-report included an article discussing how the Second Circuit set fees for one solo attorney. The case involved an ERISA claim where the attorney was successful in arguing that his client’s pension should not be reduced because of a break in service. The attorney based his proposed billing rate on the billing rate of six attorneys in larger firms that handled similar cases. The fee proposal submitted to the court was accompanied by affidavits from those six attorneys.

The District Court reduced the lawyer’s claimed hours for reasons including work on unsuccessful claims the Court deemed not sufficiently related to the main claim and record keeping which did not adequately separate ‘administrative’ from ‘legal’ tasks. In addition to the reduction in hours, the Court set the billing rate at $100 below the attorney’s proposed rate, citing the fact that the attorney was a solo, and therefore had low overhead costs.

The matter was appealed and remanded to the District Court where a second judge determined the solo’s fee based upon a ‘blended rate’ which the Court determined by estimating what a larger firm might bill for specific tasks if they were performed by attorneys with differing levels of experience.

The matter was appealed again, and the Second Circuit noted that, rather than creating a fictitious ‘blended rate,’ the attorney’s fee should have been calculated based upon the different tasks actually performed by the attorney. The Second Circuit also rejected the notion that a lawyer’s rate can be lowered merely because he or she practices as a solo.

The matter was once again remanded to the District Court for determination of the lawyer’s fees.

Although the ruling is a victory of sorts for solos because the Court recognized that an attorney’s status as a solo doesn’t automatically mean that lawyer’s fees should be less than those charged by a larger firm, it may also create more problems for attorneys whose fees are reviewed by the courts. Will the courts scrutinize every single task performed by the lawyer in order to determine the appropriate fee? It seems that reducing the number of hours for tasks not considered ‘legal’ tasks would be more appropriate than reducing the attorney’s rate. Notably, according to the article, the original District Court judge did both.

Since I’ve been discussing value-based fees recently, I’m curious how the courts might rule on value based fees. If a lawyer bases his or her fee on value to the client (where the method for calculating fees is not determined by statute), and quotes the client a fixed fee up front, will the courts uphold the fee, or insist on scrutinizing the particular tasks performed, regardless of the result or the client’s satisfaction/agreement to the method of calculating fees? Only time will tell.

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Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

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