A modest proposal (about NYC Bar Op. 2019-5)

I have made a living (well not actually a living since no one compensates me in any form of currency, whether crypto or otherwise, for my writings here) writing about problematic ethics opinions. July 11, 2019 brings what might be the most practically useless ethics opinion ever released. If it were only just practically useless, then it might not be worth writing about. But it adds into the mix the fact that it appears, without discussion, to significantly expand the scope of the rule being interpreted as well.

It comes from the New York City Bar, and it addresses cryptocurrency. Well, that’s not fair exactly. Nebraska opinion 17-03 which I wrote about almost two years ago can be described as an ethics opinion that addresses cryptocurrency. This opinion from the New York City Bar addresses a highly speculative question related to cryptocurrency. It asks “what if…a lawyer entered into an agreement with a client that would require the client to pay the lawyer in cryptocurrency?” Not kidding. That is literally the overriding premise. Now, admittedly, Memphis is a long way from New York City, but is this really a potential fee contract provision with relevance to more than a handful of lawyers?

If it is relevant to you, then you could go read the full opinion at this link. Before you decide whether that is how you wish to spend your time though, here is an excerpt from the opinion that literally identifies the three variations of possible fee agreements it considers:

  1. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services for a flat fee of X units of cryptocurrency, or for an hourly fee of Y units of cryptocurrency.
  2. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars to be paid in cryptocurrency.
  3. The lawyer agrees to provide legal services at an hourly rate of $X dollars, which the client may, but need not, pay in cryptocurrency in an amount equivalent to U.S. Dollars at the time of payment.

If those questions cry out to you as needing answers, then by all means do go read the full opinion.

But, if those questions don’t sound like they are relevant to you and your practice (and the opinion itself even acknowledges that the first scenario is “perhaps-unrealistic” and the second scenario is only “perhaps more realistic”), then here’s my modest proposal.

Let’s pretend that NYC Bar Op. 2019-5 starts at roughly p. 12 and just includes the rest…. because (1) those four pages of analysis are a pretty good overview of how you work through RPC 1.8 in most jurisdictions in order to evaluate the business transaction with a client issue, and (2) it reminds the reader of the two significant ways that New York’s version of RPC 1.8(a) differs from the ABA Model Rule.

New York’s version differs from the ABA Model by making the scope of its RPC 1.8(a) less broad in two different ways. It mandates that the rule only applies to transactions where the lawyer and client have “differing interests” in the transaction and where the client expects the lawyer to be exercising professional judgment on behalf of the client.

Nevertheless, the last four pages of the opinion give sound guidance of what a lawyer has to be concerned about with respect to a business transaction with a client:

First, the lawyer must ensure that the transaction is “fair and reasonable to the client” and must disclose the terms of the transaction in writing and “in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client.”

[snip]

Second, the lawyer must advise the client, in writing, about the desirability of seeking separate counsel and must then give the client a reasonable opportunity to consult separate counsel.

[snip]

Third, the client must understand and agree to “the essential terms of the transaction, and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.”

One added benefit of my modest proposal is that it will also avoid the Pandora’s Box this opinion appears to wish to open. As long as the full version of this opinion exists, then lawyers will need to pay very close attention to what happens on page 4. That is when the opinion blithely sticks the words “(or prospective client)” in without discussion. Given the text of the rule, this reference would appear to entirely transform RPC 1.8(a) from a rule that only applies to a business transaction with someone who has already become your client into a rule that now applies to contracts to form an attorney-client relationship.

While the NYC Bar Opinion does cite to Professor Simon’s annotated version of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct (not surprisingly in the four pages at the end which should stay), my admittedly quick review of what Professor Simon offers in the annotations to RPC 1.8(a) doesn’t appear to indicate that the rule is as expansive as this opinion seems to indicate. Many of those annotations certainly read like the transaction in question can’t be the one that creates the attorney-client relationship itself. That seems like a pretty big thing to parenthetically speak into existence in this ethics opinion.

New good, but not perfect, guidance from the ABA

The Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility of the ABA has been on something of a bit of a “spree” when it comes to the issuance of ethics opinions. (At least, it feels like it.) In the last 18 months, it has issued 10 opinions.

The most recent one is ABA Formal Op. 487 which offers ethical guidance to lawyers who take cases on a contingent fee basis or, more precisely, lawyers who take cases on a contingent fee basis after some other lawyer in a different firm has previously taken on the same case on a contingent fee basis. The dynamic of what exactly happens in such situations if, ultimately, there is some sort of successful result is largely the stuff of state-specific case law driven by lien laws and the distinction between whether a lawyer ends up being able to seek fees under their contract or under quantum meruit. Despite that, and relegating reference to those issues to a footnote at the end of the opinion, SCEPR has decided this area needs to be filled with guidance.

In doing so, the opinion focuses its attention upon the obligations of the new lawyer to communicate to the client about the potential – as difficult to quantify as it admittedly is – that the first lawyer might still be entitled to an amount of fees in the event of a recovery in the matter.

In giving this guidance, the ABA Formal Opinion certainly isn’t wrong (although I think it is wrong in one particular statement), but it is not entirely helpful and it is certainly not very practical.

Where a client hires successor counsel to handle an existing contingency fee matter, it does not pose an unreasonable burden on the successor counsel to advise the client that the predecessor counsel may have a claim to a portion of the legal fee if there is a recovery. In many instances, precision on this issue may be difficult as successor counsel may need to review the predecessor counsel’s fee agreement and assess its enforceability. Similarly, successor counsel may not be fully familiar with the nature and extent of the prior lawyer’s work on the matter. Successor counsel also will not know the amount of the recovery, if any, at the beginning of the representation. Nevertheless, Rules 1.5(b) and (c) mandate that successor counsel provide written notice that a portion of the fee may be claimed by the predecessor counsel.

That reading of the requirements of Rules 1.5(b) and (c) is not really an obvious and straightforward one. Thus, I don’t think it gives a very compelling foundation for the opinion’s conclusion. The conclusion is still probably correct though. Because there is an ABA Model Rule that provides a pretty compelling rationale for the conclusion even though the opinion rather remarkably never once references it — Model Rule 1.4(b) (“A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”)

As to the one particular statement that I think the opinion simply gets wrong, it is the statement that talks about clients not being able to be exposed to “more than one contingent fee when switching attorneys” and that ordinarily neither the first lawyer nor the second lawyer would ordinarily be entitled to a full contingent fee. I think both of those statements are offered with far too much certainty to comport with reality. It is not at all difficult to come up with scenarios where it is only the work of the second lawyer that provides the reasons for the successful outcome triggering the availability of a contingent fee.

One thing that the opinion does very well though is make clear the way in which the rules don’t work on this topic. The opinion spends a good bit of time explaining something that should have been obvious – but has not been for some courts — the rule on fee sharing between lawyers in different firms does not have any application to this situation.

The opinion adroitly walks through the ways in which ABA Model Rule 1.5(e) is entirely inapplicable to a situation in which the first lawyer on a case has been discharged and a second lawyer has taken over the representation of the client.

Nearly four years later… and I’m making that James Bond reference this time.

So, if any of you are still around these parts after I’ve gone some 12 days without writing any content, then you are in for me dredging someone up that I previously wrote about on June 30, 2015. An attorney named Rodger Moore.

Rodger Moore. And he was suspended for the practice of law for conduct that involved stealing adult beverages (wine) and also stealing the oil of olives. You know… olives… the garnish that goes in a martini.

I guess back in the halcyon days of this venture I considered myself above making a James Bond reference? Well, I’m four years older now and don’t consider myself above much of anything I guess. So…here goes.

Rodger Moore is no longer licensed to bill.

Also, Roger Moore was not the best Bond, but this Rodger Moore was not the best lawyer.

The need for just a bit of “dry” humor for today’s post is in order because nothing else about the story is humorous. And, in fact, while not doing so in a fashion that is at all effective for his case, Mr. Moore raises a topic in the press that is not deserving of being milked for humor of any sort — the problem of depression in our profession.

You (like me) may have seen the story in The ABA Journal about the fact that after previously being suspended for failure to disclose certain pieces of his criminal past, Mr. Moore has now been disbarred for trying to charge over $10,000 to a client he had promised to represent for free. If you’d care to read the full Ohio opinion disbarring him from practice, you can get it here.

In short-form version, a woman who qualified for legal aid representation going through a divorce agreed to switch lawyers to Moore, after Moore sent an email saying he would represent her for free. Shortly thereafter, he sent her an invoice for $9,500 but then told her she didn’t have to pay that but that he was going to seek to have the court award his fee against her husband. He never did that but did send her an $11,000 promissory note and seek to have her sign that. Eventually, he had to bow out of her case because of his suspension from practice (but not until first trying to appear in court for her the day after he was suspended). He then got an attorney he shared office space with to take over the representation. That lawyer confirmed to her that he was providing the services for free but, ultimately, filed a lawsuit against her, representing Mr. Moore’s firm, seeking to force her to pay pursuant to the promissory note.

Based on his past history, his failure to appear on his own behalf in the disciplinary case, and the fact that he tried at the eleventh-hour to proffer up his license to retire or resign from practice rather than being disciplined, the Ohio Supreme Court decided to permanently disbar him.

In a real plot twist, Mr. Moore has communicated extensively with The ABA Journal as their article reveals and shared with them a draft letter that he was thinking about sending to the Ohio Supreme Court to complain about how he was treated.

Now, I’m fortunate enough that I do not suffer from depression. As I’ve revealed before anxiety is my issue. There is no question that problems with depression are rampant in our profession and little doubt that mental health issues continue to be stigmatized, hidden, and not treated effectively when it comes to lawyers.

I don’t have the necessary clinical training to know the first thing about whether Mr. Moore’s narrative could be explained by depression but I do know that the opinion reveals that he continued to practice while suspended for a pretty significant period of time, represented himself, and that both of those facts likely played a role in his ultimate disbarment. Both of those facts are the kind of things that are also not inconsistent with side effects of depression.

Mr. Moore may not be a very good messenger for the underlying message of the continued need to preach about the awareness of mental health issues, and his claimed beef that the disciplinary process should take depression into account as a mitigating factor misses the mark because nearly all states do – through application of the ABA Standards for Lawyer Misconduct – take mental health issues into account.

But he is, albeit maybe just inadvertently, a good messenger for making an important, and hard, point. Those kinds of proceedings can only take such things into account if the lawyer is able to disclose them so that they can be considered. Mr. Moore pretty clearly didn’t disclose any issues with depression at the time of the proceedings themselves but, because of the nature of such things and, if he was representing himself, if he really was suffering from untreated depression he might not have been able to bring himself to do so.

Any lawyer interested in reading up on issues of attorney wellness can now find a variety of good resources online. Perhaps the most recent report issued by a state bar comes out of Virginia and you can read that one here if you are so inclined.

Overreaching on attorney fees. Plaintiff’s lawyers do it too.

There are always a variety of ways that examples of overreaching by attorneys on fees manage to push into the legal news. Recently, I wrote about one example involving hourly billing. More often than not, overreaching under that system is what makes the news.

It is not the only way that attorneys overreach on fees though. It is done by plaintiff’s lawyers as well.

Today’s post is about a very recent disciplinary decision issued by the Tennessee Supreme Court that publicly censures a lawyer for overreaching in connection with a contingent fee agreement. It is a case that confirms a point I have raised with a number of lawyers over the years but for which I never had ready authority – other than the rules themselves – to back up my point. Now, I’ve got this decision in Moore v. BPR to help convince folks who need convincing.

At its core, this case explains the limits on the ability of a plaintiff’s attorney to try to guard against what happens if their client rejects the attorney’s advice on whether to accept a settlement offer. There do, in fact, have to be limits on the ability to hedge against that because the ethics rules establish explicitly that the decision whether to settle a civil case or not is the client’s decision. RPC 1.2(a).

The rules clearly allow a lawyer who wishes to withdraw from representing a client over a disagreement about whether to settle a case to pursue withdrawal as long as they can justify it under one or more provisions of RPC 1.16(b). The law in Tennessee also permits such an attorney, if they do withdraw, to assert a lien as authorized by statute and pursuant to either the terms of their contract or, perhaps, depending on how things turn out for payment in the form of quantum meruit.

What the rules simply do not let a lawyer do is what happened in this new Tennessee Supreme Court case — include a term in the contract with the client that says that, if the client rejects a settlement that the lawyer advises should be accepted, then the lawyer becomes entitled – as a matter of contract – to a fee of x% of the settlement offer being rejected.

And, it does not matter what x equals in that last sentence. However, the nature of the overreach is certainly easier to spot when x happens to equal the original contingent fee percentage as was the case here.

As the Court explains, such a provision is not only antithetical to RPC 1.2(a) because of how much it undermines the right of the client as to settlement but it also takes a situation that is already difficult to balance with questions of conflicts and makes it untenable. Such a provision creates a severe conflict of interest for the lawyer at the moment the other side makes a settlement offer.

You can read the full opinion here. As a bonus, this case is also a primer for those who do disciplinary defense on the potential diminishing returns involved in pursuing appeals from public censures given that the rules prohibit a hearing panel who concludes that discipline should be imposed from imposing any discipline less serious than a public censure.

Thus, any attorney who seeks to appeal from a public censure imposed by a hearing panel has to understand that victory on appeal can only be obtained through a reversal in the nature of complete exoneration on the allegations of disciplinary violations. Far too many attorneys who represent themselves or who dabble in disciplinary defense often fail to understand that dynamic.

Inflation is likely more widespread than you’d like to believe.

Time inflation that is. I’m certainly not an economist.

In the past, I have written about issues associated with overbilling by lawyers in a number of different respects.

Today’s post involves a rare public situation involving the admission of overbilling by a lawyer – one that comes out of Illinois and involves a lawyer who worked his way up the ladder in not just one but two prominent firms in Chicago.  The attorney, Christopher Anderson, has now been made the subject of formal disciplinary proceedings based on his own admission of inflating his time entries and billings first while at Kirkland & Ellis as an associate and later at Neal Gerber Eisenberg, ultimately achieving the status of a non-equity partner.

Anderson came clean to the powers-that-be at the Neal Gerber firm after he had been practicing there for three years in 2018.  That firm did its own investigation and decided it needed to offer refunds or credits to some 100 clients who had been made to overpay as a result of Anderson’s conduct.  The refunds, as reported in the disciplinary complaint, amounted to roughly $150,000 and stemmed from the conclusion that only 4/5 of the time Anderson had billed to clients was legitimate.  The complaint indicates that once Kirkland & Ellis learned of Anderson’s conduct and that he had been engaged in the behavior there as well worked through its own process to offer refunds to clients.

The complaint describes the nature of the scheme on Anderson’s part to inflate his billings and is what I have always believed is what happens to be the most widespread way of abusing billable hours in our profession because it is the most tempting route to travel and the one that lawyers believe is the hardest to prove is happening:

During his time at both firms, in an attempt to meet what he perceived to be the firms’ billing expectations, Respondent recorded time beyond what he had actually spent in handling client matters, knowing that the time he recorded would be billed to his client and that they would be asked to pay fees based on the records he created.  For the days that Respondent felt he had not recorded sufficient time on client matter, he increased the time he claimed to have been spent on those matter based on a number of factors, including his assessment of the likelihood that the client would object to the time he recorded.  As an example, if Respondent spent 0.3 hours on a client matter, he would record that he had actually spent 0.5 hours, or he would bill 2.1 hours for work that actually took him 1.7 hours to complete.

Not surprisingly, some immediate reporting about the situation from The American Lawyer stressed the rareness of intentional overbilling. I beg to differ on that.   Unfortunately, I think this kind of practice goes on much more often than our profession would ever care to admit.  People who act out of a feeling of pressure that their “numbers” are not strong enough or who feel like they’re being forced to accept a cut-rate hourly fee for their time can find themselves heading down this path because, unlike inventing tasks that could be proven not to have been performed, there truly is very little ability for an outsider to prove that a lawyer who says they spent 2.1 hours doing something that really only took them 1.7 hours to complete is lying to you.

Or, as more succinctly put by my friend Trisha Rich who was quoted in the Chicago media about this:


“It would be hard for somebody to catch on to (overbilling in small increments) if somebody was doing that over time, because basically our billing records are on your honor,”

Other than this particular situation in which the conduct came to light because of the lawyer’s own guilty conscience, instances usually will not be ferreted out unless the lawyer also forgets that “pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.”

The other interesting piece of this story is that Illinois is only charging Anderson with violations of RPC 1.5 and RPC 8.4(c), but not also charging for violating RPC 7.1.  Illinois’s Rule 7.1 certainly could have also been included in the complaint because Illinois’s version of the rule has the same language as the ABA Model Rules:  “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.”

Given that Anderson essentially has admitted the misconduct, throwing an additional charge at him likely would just have been piling on, but trying to remind lawyers that RPC 7.1 doesn’t just apply to advertising but applies to a wide variety of false statements about a lawyer or their services (here, falsely stating how much time you actually worked) is something of pet peeve of mind mine. [edited to be less stupid on 1/31/19]

Utahlking Ethics Opinions to Me? (Also Texas)

I’m interested in writing today about two recent ethics opinions that manage to go together quite nicely.  Utah Ethics Adv. Op. 18-04 and Texas Professional Ethics Committee Op. 679.  Both involve RPC 1.8 (or at least both should).  And, not only does neither opinion do a very good job with the subject matter it tackles but both tackle subjects where lawyers need to tread very carefully and could use really good advice.

But, as just a quick aside before doing so, I wanted to express some gratitude from last week and point you to a very important story worth reading.  As the culmination of a many-months-long project, I had the chance to share the stage last week at the ABA Forum on Franchising with two excellent lawyers – Shannon McCarthy Associate General Counsel for Chihuly, Inc. and Kevin Kennedy, General Counsel of Wiggin and Dana in Connecticut — and talk about a tricky and delicate topic – lawyers and obligations to report other lawyers with a particular emphasis on issues involving harassment and other toxic behavior.  I was really fortunate to get to work with them both.  For a story that offers something of a how-not-to manual offered by the experience of one of the world’s largest law firms, you can go read up here.

Now, back to regularly-scheduled programming…

While I missed it around the time it came out, the Utah State Bar put out an interesting ethics opinion explaining to lawyers a way they might be able ethically to mitigate their risk exposure in the event of third-party claims against the lawyer based on the client’s conduct.

The opinion declares that “[a]n attorney may include an indemnification provision in a retainer agreement at the commencement of representation that requires the client to indemnify the attorney and related entities against claims that arise from the client’s behavior or negligence.”

In explaining this outcome, the Utah opinion points out that nothing about RPC 1.8(h) directly prohibits it.  However, it doesn’t just stop there, it goes on to explain … just kidding actually.  It stops there on that issue.

As a practical matter, that is sort of a shame because lawyers ought to be cautioned a bit about the problems associated with starting the relationship with a client off with that sort of provision — particularly because if you are that concerned about that risk of liability from the client’s conduct, then maybe a rethink about whether to take them on is in order.  But, if one is going to do it, the beginning of the relationship is certainly more viable than mid-stream.

Speaking of which, that brings me to the Texas opinion, which tasked itself with answering this question:

May a lawyer renegotiate his fixed, flat fee for representing a client in litigation after the litigation is underway if the matter turns out to be greater in scope and complexity than the lawyer and client contemplated?

If Texas was interested in doing this right, it would recognize that the answer lies in application of its version of Model Rule 1.8(a) because that situation is a business transaction between lawyer and client.  Instead, Texas actually announced that its version of that rule does not apply to a mid-stream renegotiation of a fee.

Instead, the opinion points out that Texas courts have considered the issue and have said that it can occur but that there is a “presumption of unfairness.”  Rejecting the opportunity to apply Rule 1.8 to these circumstances is all the more baffling because — providing guidance to interpret ethics rules is the kind of thing ethics opinion writing bodies are supposed to do, rather than providing guidance about what court decisions mean.

In the end though, I’m likely being too harsh on the Texas opinion because it, at least, summarizes pretty nicely the analysis of the dynamic from the lawyer side of things and why, in most situations, effectuating an enforceable renegotiation will be unlikely:

The fundamental nature of a flat or fixed fee is that there is risk to the lawyer that the legal work and time required may exceed what the lawyer might have earned if the lawyer instead billed by the hour.  The client knows with certain that the total fee charged, no matter how much lawyer time or effort is involved, will not exceed the fixed amount.  The client’s risk in a flat or fixed fee agreement is the possibility of paying more than the client would have paid under an hourly billing agreement if the lawyer is able to complete the representation is [sic] less time than originally expected.  Because the lawyer is better able to anticipate the time and legal work required, the lawyer should be mindful that he knowingly assumed the risk — and should not unreasonably seek to change the fee agreement simply because the lawyer agreed to a fixed fee that, in hindsight, is no longer adequate.

(emphasis added).  And, also, amen to that.

 

 

They got away with it, but that doesn’t make it worth trying.

Lawyers billing clients on the basis of time spent is less than ideal for all involved.  For lawyers, it isn’t the best proxy for value delivered in terms of service and incentivizes inefficiency.  For clients, it isn’t the best proxy of value received in terms of service and leaves clients feeling like the only way to cut corners on costs is to either demand limited time on a task or to just not agree for a lawyer to perform a particular task.  For clients and lawyers alike, it also creates distrust of lawyers with respect to second-guessing the amount of time they spend on tasks (or claim to have spend on tasks).  It also doesn’t give clients much of a sense that they are paying for results or accomplishments.  Lots of pieces have been written, over many, many years, about how the billable hour model is outdated or on its way out the door.  Yet, it persists.

This is not going to be one of those pieces today.  Rather, I want to write a few words about a case out of Wyoming that I would worry is going to send exactly the wrong message to lawyers.  That case is a ruling on fee dispute litigation out of the Wyoming Supreme Court, Manigault v. Daly & Sorenson, LLC.  You may have seen headlines of stories about it that are in the nature of: Court rules billing in 15-minute increments was not abusive.

All lawyers who bill by the hour end up having to pick some base line minimum increment for billing purposes.  I, and my firm, do so using 6-minute increments (.1) as the baseline.  It is certainly possible to measure time more accurately than that, but (I believe) that the standard minimum these days for keeping time is to carve time up into 6 minute blocks.  There was a time when the standard minimum for those blocks were 15 minute intervals, but technology has advanced, timekeeping has improved, and the time when minimum quarter-of-an-hour billing was acceptable (in my opinion) has passed.

In the Wyoming decision, the Court ultimately found that this particular law firm’s use of a 15-minute minimum increment with this particular client was ultimately reasonable.  Remarkably, it did so even when the firm did not have a written fee agreement with the client.  But there are a couple of things about the case that – to me – stand out as crucial to the particular result and also help drive home the point that this is not something that most lawyers could get away with and, thus, should not attempt to do.

The first, and I think the more outcome-determinative, is that the fee dispute was one that was with a very long time client of the firm and, thus, someone who, over time, would be much less sympathetic to be heard complaining about 15-minute billing increments as the minimum.  Since apparently that was how this client and that firm had interacted over the course of almost 100 prior matters over 15 years.

The second is that the record indicated that the firm was relatively diligent about aggregating tasks into the minimum increments so that the minimum increment was not used as a method of easily increasing the charge to the client.

The Wyoming Supreme Court explained quite cogently the difference between the situation it had before it this time and other, prior circumstances in which it took lawyers to task for how they used their 15-minute minimum billing increment approach:

Manigault likens the firm’s use of a fifteen-minute billing interval to that which was the subject of a disciplinary proceeding in Casper.  In that case, the attorney employed a number of unethical billing practices and admittedly misused her fifteen-minute minimum billing interval.  She billed fifteen minutes every time she signed a document, and several times she billed fifteen minutes for reviewing a one-page document.  She also billed fifteen minutes to review a short document and then billed the same amount of time again for signing it.

In Casper, this Court discussed the practice of billing according to minimum intervals of six, ten, and fifteen minutes. . . . we observed it would be abusive to bill two fifteen minute charges for two five-minute phone calls in the same fifteen-minute period.

Nothing approaching that sort of unreasonable or abusive billing is evident on this record.. . .

[snip]

What is not often discussed is this concept of the need to still attempt to hew toward composite accuracy in the amount of time billed regardless of what minimum increment is used.  “Composite accuracy” might not be the right phrase but what I’m using it to attempt to describe is that the ultimate measure for a lawyer who bills by the hour has to be that you don’t use it to bill clients for more time in the day than the total time you actually spend working.

The truly pernicious problem for lawyers who attempt to still use 15-minute increments as their method of billing is how easily that can lead them to bill a collection of clients for 8 hours of time while only putting in 3 or 4 hours of actual work.  Or, more likely, billing 14 or 15 hours for a day where 6 or 7 hours of actual time was spent performing work for clients.

The Wyoming case also, unfortunately, gave credence to a common attempted justification by lawyers confronted with trying to justify the 15-minute billing increment that – to me – involves a significant amount of disingenuity:  that billing a client 15 minutes of time for a phone call that they know full well may have taken only 5 minutes is justified because the 15 minute time period also captures the time associated with stopping one task, shifting to the client’s task, making a note in the file about the interaction, and then trying to get back into the mindset of whatever you were working on before.

In modern practice, however, there is one dominant form of communication that simply – and often unequivocally – undercuts any lawyer that tries to use that justification.  Email.  Find me a lawyer who wants to justify a 15-minute minimum increment based on that kind of rationalization, and I strongly suspect that I can show that lawyer, by way of a review of their email history, that they turned much more quickly from answering an email for one client, to crafting an email for another client, then on to responding to some other email.

What that means is, if a lawyer is out there trying to charge their clients for 15 minutes of time for reading and responding to an email, which may have only taken them 5 minutes, and then attempting to justify it based on other things that were done or time lost as part of that, then it will often be extremely easy to demonstrate that within the same 15 minute period they will have replied or sent other emails to other clients on other matters and, likely, they will have billed that client for a 15 minute block as well.  This quickly adds up and is how a lawyer could easily manage in only 20 minutes of actual working time to attempt to bill for an hour of work.

That fudging of the numbers, of course, can also happen using 6-minute increments of time, which raises the ultimate larger point that I fear escapes notice of far too many lawyers:  no matter the minimum increment you pick (unless you are recording and billing for your time truly down to the minute), you are supposed to still be using that system as a proxy toward attempting to best capture your actual time spent.

That means that even if you are billing in 6-minute increments, you are supposed to be trying to bundle smaller tasks during the course of the day together into one of the minimum increments.  If, for the same client, you respond to 2 and only 2 emails during the course of a day and each one took you only a couple of minutes to address, you are supposed to bill that client for one .1 time entry – because you spent a total of 4 minutes working for them that day and you have arranged to bill them at a minimum increment of 6 minutes.  You are not supposed to bill .2 (12 minutes) for that 4 minutes of working time.  When lawyers do both this and opt for the minimum 15 minute incremental block, then the problems with the arrangement increase in magnitude because the lawyer ends up billing the client for 30 minutes of time for 2 tasks that only took 4 minutes to perform.

An ethics opinion from the Coinhusker state

Answering the question that was undoubtedly on the minds of every lawyer practicing in that state, the Lawyer’s Advisory Committee of the Nebraska Supreme Court issued Ethics Advisory Opinion for Lawyers No. 17-03 making clear that, yes, lawyers can accept payment from clients in the form of Bitcoin or other similar digital currencies.

I don’t exactly know what to make of this opinion.  I’m not normally a list maker, but here’s a quick pros and cons lists to label my feelings.

Pros:

  1.  It offers a pretty good explanation of what Bitcoin is and how it works.
  2. If you are a Nebraska lawyer interested in the answer to the question it definitely gives you a definitive answer.
  3. It is well written.
  4. It demonstrates how adaptable ethics rules for lawyers are that they don’t have to be changed simply because new technology arises that didn’t exist when the rule was first created.  (But see con #3.)

Cons:

  1.  I don’t know who this opinion is really for in terms of usefulness.
  2. Nebraska? Surely that wasn’t the state with a pressing need to be the first to issue an opinion on this topic.
  3. It incorrectly treats using property to pay an attorney fee differently than when the property involved isn’t Bitcoin.
  4. It entirely overlooks the most important aspect of lack of confidentiality in terms of impact on such a payment arrangement.

Since expanding on the “cons” is always a bit more fun as a writer, let me do that.

Who is the opinion for?  Why would any lawyer today be willing to accept Bitcoin as a form of payment?  Most answers to that question that I can come up with require the lawyer to be something of a believer in its use as a financial system.  If the lawyer in question happens to practice in Nebraska, that seems a pretty solid bet.  If that is true, then to some extent the opinion gives with one hand but takes away with the other by saying that a lawyer can accept payment in Bitcoin but then has to immediately convert the payment back into dollars.  If a lawyer is willing to put his or her faith into the Bitcoin currency system (and obviously the client must already have faith in that system), then why require them to immediately convert that client’s payment to dollars?

The answer to that – according to the opinion — is that Bitcoin is classified as property under the law and not as a currency and has the potential for rapid fluctuation in value.  But… shifting to the third con on the list… why should accepting this kind of property with fluctuating value as payment for services be treated so differently than other forms of property?

While we likely wouldn’t need a regulatory body to issue an ethics opinion on whether lawyers can accept payment in the form of gold or silver (of course they can), would we be comfortable with such an opinion declaring the lawyer has to immediately sell that property to turn it into cash?  If gold and silver seem too unwieldy for the thought exercise, then how about shares of stock or stock options.  (Let’s assume those would be otherwise done in compliance with restrictions such as Model Rule 1.8(a) and (i).)  Stocks can certainly fluctuate significantly in value and always have the potential to do so very rapidly.

Would you agree with an opinion that says a lawyer would have to immediately trade shares of stock for dollars because of the risk of rapid increase in value or decrease in value?  Why can’t two or more grown-ups negotiate an agreement for compensation in the form of property with a fluctuating value just because one or more of them is an attorney?  Why wouldn’t the lawyer taking on the risk of decrease in value play a role in evaluating reasonableness of the fee?

And, finally, the opinion talks a bit about confidentiality issues involved in payment via Bitcoin from a third party rather than the client, but completely overlooks the fundamental risk to client confidentiality created by accepting payment in Bitcoin from a client.  Such a transaction — necessarily because of the very architecture upon which Bitcoin is founded as the opinion does explain — is an open transaction for which confidentiality cannot be reasonably expected much less guaranteed.

Somehow the opinion  doesn’t manage to advise lawyers to make sure the client understands that – unlike cash or checks or wire transfers or even credit card payments — the fact of the client’s payment of money to a particular lawyer and all of the implications that payment entails is available to anyone sophisticated enough to understand how to delve into the Bitcoin ledger system.

So, in the end, sure the opinion says that a lawyer can accept payment in Bitcoin, but under this framework why would anyone ever do so?

More of me weighing in on Oregon weighing in on the future

For those that missed my post earlier this week on the release of the Oregon State Bar Futures Task Force report, you can read that post here and get caught up.

Today, I want to offer some thoughts on one of the three Recommendations made by the Regulatory Committee of the Futures Task Force.  It is likely the most important of the Recommendations but certain to be the most controversial as well.

Recommendation 2: Revise Rules of Professional Conduct to Remove Barriers to Innovation.

This recommendation is comprised of four parts.  I’ll list them in the order they are presented, even though that is not the order in which I want to discuss them.

2.1  Amend current advertising rules to allow in-person or real-time electronic solicitation, with limited exceptions.

2.2  Amend current fee-sharing rules to allow fee sharing between lawyers and lawyer referral services, with appropriate disclosure to clients.

2.3  Amend current fee-sharing and partnership rules to allow participation by licensed paraprofessionals.

2.4  Clarify that providing access to web-based intelligent software that allows consumers to create custom legal documents is not the practice of law.

Now, that third sub-part creates a spoiler for another of the three Regulatory Committee recommendations – Implement Legal Paraprofessional Licensure.  Given the way those programs have played out to date in a number of other jurisdictions, I don’t think that is going to do much to turn any tides, so for now I’m going to pass on discussing it.  (If you want to delve into it, you can read all of thoughts of the Futures Task Force on that subject and the entirety of the 90+ page report behind the Executive Summary here.)

The fourth one – making clear that certain software programs that let someone through self-help generate customized legal documents — is a perfectly fine idea and, in this day and age, seems very difficult to argue against.  With each passing day, the notion that there are certain legal problems that states cannot allow be served through software programs that do for certain legal problems what tax return software programs do for income taxes seems harder and harder to justify.  But, I’m not sure that such a clarification is what is standing between better access to legal services for consumers and where things are today.  I tend to think that, in part, because those services already exist and are in pretty wide use because companies already make them available and consumers already use them.

The first one about changes to the advertising rules is most certainly a provision I would support (and have supported in past posts).  Virginia has just done something similar with its recent rule revisions.  But again, I don’t know that this change would be something that, as a response or solution to trying to improve public access to legal services, will make any real difference.  Why do I say that?  It is currently not at all very difficult to create an online platform in which it is the consumers that make the first communication effort so that lawyers can respond to it rather than initiate it.  As long as that is true, then lawyer advertising rules prohibiting solicitation do not present any barrier at all to getting consumers in need of legal services and lawyers with the time and ability to provide the services together.

That leaves the second subpart.  And that is the one where I suggest, respectfully, all the marbles are located for lawyers.

The notion of changing the ethics rules to allow lawyers to share fees in a particular matter with nonlawyers, as long as there is full, appropriate disclosure to the consumer of what is taking place.

The specific proposal Oregon’s Task Force has offered is for its current RPC 5.4(a)(5) that only references bar-sponsored or not-for-profit referral services to be revised to read instead as follows:

(a)  A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer, except that

***

(5) a lawyer may pay the usual charges of a lawyer-referral service, including sharing legal fees with the service, only if:

(i) the lawyer communicates to the client in writing at the outset of the representation the amount of the charge and the manner of its calculation, and

(ii) the total fee for legal services rendered to the client combined with the amount of the charge would not be a clearly excessive fee pursuant to Rule 1.5 if it were solely a fee for legal services, including fees calculated as a percentage of legal fees received by the lawyer from a referral.

That is an action that would, overnight, make pretty much every technological innovation already available (or even conceivable) viable for lawyers to participate in as a way of delivering legal services to consumers and businesses.  It would also allow many existing operators in the legal space to spend less time on trying to come up with workarounds about not being engaged in making referrals in their business model to try to assuage concerns that lawyers who use their platforms will be the subject of disciplinary complaints.

In short, that recommendation appears to me to the one that must be discussed and debated and decided on before any evaluation can be made about what any of the other ones might mean or accomplish.

If Oregon follows through, it seems difficult to speculate that one or more other states won’t follow.  And, if the experience of those states shows that full disclosure of the sharing arrangement, plus compliance with the other ethics rules requiring exercise of independent professional judgment and not allowing interference with that judgment, then it will seem very difficult for any jurisdiction to argue against doing the same.

It is inherently a controversial topic because the prohibition against fee sharing with nonlawyers is viewed by many as a bedrock principle of our profession.  But — if the underlying premise of that bedrock principle is restated as preserving the independent professional judgment of lawyers from undue influence by others — then the Oregon proposal that would allow fee sharing, require fulsome disclosure to the consumer involved about that arrangement could still readily be expected to serve that bedrock principle and protect consumers while benefiting consumers because – though not highlighted in the Report, RPC 5.4(c) would still be in force as well.

(c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who
recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render
legal services for another to direct or regulate the
lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering such legal
services.

Existing models of the online approach to pairing lawyers and consumers in need of legal services could almost all be placed into this bucket and, thus, lawyers using these services would still have maintain their independent professional judgment and refuse and resist efforts to compromise it.

A tale as old as time.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one … it’s about a lawyer getting into trouble for overbilling … where there are examples of the lawyer even trying to claim to have billed more than 24 hours in a day.

You probably stopped me somewhere in there because you have heard it before.  The legal profession is filled with people who bill their time fastidiously and honestly.  The legal profession also has among its ranks some folks who don’t.  A West Virginia lawyer subjected to a two-year suspension from practice is among the “don’t” and, remarkably, almost got a much lesser suspension, in part, simply because he was not among the worst overbillers that a West Virginia agency – Public Defender Services – was dealing with.

That context is actually part of what makes this particular incident really worth writing about because it is another unfortunate example of discipline for overbilling coming up in a context where some people can often try to argue it away as being somehow more understandable — lawyers who are trying to make a living off of court-appointed work at unfairly low hourly rates.  The problem, of course, is that not only is that still not a particularly good excuse for deceptive billing practices but it also is counter-productive to how much more difficult it makes it for people who want to advocate for better compensation arrangements for such lawyers to gain traction.

I tend to think the frequency with which lawyers get caught for over-billing in connection with court-appointed work isn’t necessarily a matter of those lawyers being more prone to doing so as much as it is that they are more prone to getting caught because there is effectively one “client” able to see all of their time records and, literally, do the math that the clients of lawyers in private practice serving a variety of clients aren’t as readily positioned to do.

Overbilling was not the only ethical flaw of the West Virginia lawyer made the subject of this 40-page opinion of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals — interestingly enough his other problems involved missing deadlines and neglecting client matters and even includes an interesting side excursion into his suffering from low testosterone which manages to make the inflated billable numbers from prior years seem even more . . . nope, I’m not going to go for blue humor.  At least not today.

For those who don’t want to read a 40-page opinion about this kind of conduct, just a few of the highlights in terms of both the egregious nature of the billing practice and the really pretty remarkable testimony about how he stacked up compared to other lawyers in terms of Cooke-ing the books (We know while I may shrink at going blue I always rise to the opportunity for word play.)

First, here are the lawyer’s overbilling highlights uncovered by the Executive Director of West Virginia’s Public Defender Services:

  • “found to have exceeded fifteen billable hours a day on thirty-one dates from mid-January, 2014 to mid-September, 2014.” (NB: the lawyer’s claimed low testosterone problems were stated to be during and around August 2014 and the West Virginia court most certainly paid attention to that time line to point out that it was interesting that he claimed to be sleeping 10 to 16 hours a day when he couldn’t meet certain deadlines so that, at most, during the relevant time period he couldn’t bill more than 8 to 14 hours a day.)
  • “on four dates he submitted vouchers for twenty-three or greater billable hours and on two dates he submitted vouchers for greater than twenty-four hours” (including billing 27 hours on December 26)
  • “billed 2,568.5 hours, 2,279.3 hours, 2,671.2 hours, and 3,259.46 hours for the years 2011-2014, respectively. These billable hours equate to an average daily billable rate of 7 hours, 6.2 hours, 7.3 hours, and 8.9 hours, for 365 days.”
  • “rarely billed activity at less than .2 hours (12 minutes); the only .1 (6 minutes) entries are attempted phone calls and, occasionally, a hearing. Review of any and all documentation or correspondence, including email, is billed at a minimum .2 hours. Virtually every hearing entails billing .3 hours for “waiting in court,” which affords a higher hourly rate.”
  • “On April 17, based on Cooke’s accounting of his time utilizing his schedule and the court’s docket, in the two-hour window from 1:00 p.m. until a 3:00 meeting at the jail, he billed a cumulative 4.3 hours of “actual time”; the activity billed all consisted of travel, waiting in court, and attending hearings. Similarly, on August 18, Cooke’s incourt schedule shows hearings at 9:00, 9:30, and 10:30 with the docket resuming at 1:00. The matters which were scheduled in the three-hour window from 9:00 a.m. until noon, were billed at a cumulative 6.1 hours. Additionally, matters beginning at 1:15 p.m. on that date were billed at additional 7.2 hours and consisted solely of waiting in court, reviewing “court summaries” while waiting, and attending hearings.”
  • when first called on to explain certain aspects of his billing, he said he couldn’t do so because Public Defender Services hadn’t provided him the information he needed and ” his own time-keeping system would not permit him to retrieve that information.”

As to the chilling notion that this lawyer was not as bad as others, the Executive Director testified:

I still hold firm that we were billed for duplicate—we were billed several times for the same trip, that we were billed several times from the same period of waiting in court. In other words, if he had three hearings, let’s say he waited in 17 court for one hearing while he was actually doing another hearing. That’s not properly [sic] billing. That’s billing the same period of time. So I firmly believe that that had happened, but in looking through the vouchers and everything else, it appeared to be less frequent than I had seen with other counsel. 25 The only perceived fraud or deception that still exists in my mind is the fact that he may have been value billing, that is, billing a .2 for an activity that should’ve only been a .1 or a .4 when it should’ve been a .2. However, he wasn’t billing me 3.0 for these things and he was—and he was saying 12 minutes as opposed to 240 minutes. . . . I just did not see in his case the overt deception that existed with many other attorneys. . . . He was unable to exonerate himself completely in this situation because he had failed to comply with that time requirement, but that, overall, I believe that he was zealously representing his clients and he was providing the actual services that were described even though the time allotted to them may have been—may not have been the actual time.

and he also:

gave the example of one attorney who “rubber-stamped” the same time for each day and one attorney who billed 900 hours of travel in a three-month period.

As a way of further bolstering the problem this creates for those working hard to try to get better, fairer hourly rate reimbursements in place, the Executive Director of the West Virginia program also:

explained that PDS is paying $25 million a year to court-appointed counsel that are, in his opinion, undercompensated at $45/hour for “out of court” time and $65/hour for “in court” time.14 He indicated that when requesting an hourly increase at the Legislature he was typically confronted with the fact that many attorneys were making greater than $100,000.00 a year in court-appointed work and that the legislators took a dim view of an hourly rate increase when, in their opinion, the court-appointed attorneys had given themselves a “raise” by overbilling.

Well, anyway, get back to work I guess.