Clerks and Associates: Should You Snitch on an Overbilling Boss?
You work at a small law firm, either as a clerk or as an associate. Your boss employs multiple shady billing tactics, such as having you guesstimate how much time it would've taken him to review a stack of documents, then billing for that amount of time, while neglecting to actually do the work.
The amount of overbilling is significant. In one case, you estimate that he inflated a $150,000 bill to over $395,000.
What do you do?
Allegedly True Story
The hypo comes from a question posed by a frustrated law clerk in Los Angeles, who wrote to the Los Angeles Times for advice. He complains about bill padding, billing $150 an hour for himself -- ten times his pay, and other alleged shady practices.
He asks the Times: "Can I tell the HOAs [the clients] what he's doing?"
Times' Take: Don't Like It? Quit
The column's authors provide a lengthy response, some of it useful, some of it far less so.
The response begins by citing the attorney-client privilege to warn against disclosing the law firm's practices to the client. Our gut instinct was "huh?", and the text of the rule (Rule 3-100) supports that feeling. The rule refers to protecting the client's information, and the client's consent to disclose information -- it's a rule that protects the client, not the shady attorney.
Ethics rules aside, the authors advise the clerk to stay quiet or quit in order to protect himself from an interference lawsuit by the firm, an outcome which seems unlikely if the firm's billing practices really are as bad as the clerk thinks. (The firm is not going to want to discuss the fraudulent bills in court.)
The best piece of advice? Keep your complaints in the family, at least for now. Discuss your concerns with your boss, and if, as expected, he ignores them, quitting might just be your best option.
The rest of the answer emphasizes a caveat emptor theme, and places the responsibility for sniffing out padded bills on the client.
Is Remaining Silent an Option?
This is the real question.
Let's say the clerk remains silent. Presumably, he someday wants to join the bar -- if the billing issues come to light, he may run into issues with the character and fitness folks, especially since he's been the one preparing the inflated bills. Plus, he's participating in fraud. Heck, even if he was hands-off, Model Rule 8.3, which would definitely apply if he were an attorney, and is good advice for future attorneys, advises:
"A lawyer who knows that another lawyer has committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects, shall inform the appropriate professional authority."
Tipping off the clients directly seems risky -- you don't know how they'll react, whether they'll sue you, your boss, or both, etc. You'll definitely be fired.
A better idea would be to tip off the state bar. They'll look in to the bills, contact the clients, and by coming forth and reporting the unethical conduct, the clerk's chances of running face-first into the ethics committee himself, once he passes the bar, would seem to be lower. Just be prepared to find a new job, since working there after filing an ethics complaint won't be an option.
Then again, do you even want to keep working for this guy?
Would you sing or stay silent? Tweet us your answer at FindLawLP.
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