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How to Avoid an Overbilling 'Feeding Frenzy'

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Overbilling cases against lawyers don't often make headlines.

That's because sooo many people think lawyers overbill that it's not even newsworthy. But once in a while a big law firm goes on an alleged "billing feeding frenzy," and it's all over the news.

For many attorneys, those stories are interesting in the same way the attorney discipline report is interesting. It's like reading the obituary column to see if you are in it.

Dead Man Walking?

According to the American Bar Association, fee disputes are routine for many lawyers. Most often, they are resolved amicably. Sometimes, they get ugly.

Charles Fox, an associate editor for Litigation News, said he saw a "jarring headline" in a legal periodical. It read: "Attorney Disbarred for Charging Unreasonable Fees."

"Boy!" he thought. "Talk about a wake-up call!"

He then reviewed Rule 1.5(a) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which lists factors to determine the reasonableness of attorney's fees. They include customary fees in the community, reputation and ability of the lawyer.

Aggravating Factors

In most cases, Fox said, aggravating factors lead to attorney discipline. Those factors include dishonesty, misuse of funds, and conflict of interest.

"The obvious lesson to be learned is to charge reasonable fees in accordance with Rule 1.5(a), and behave otherwise in a professional manner," he said. "The more subtle, and equally important, message, however, is to be able to put yourself in the client's shoes, and be ready to reconsider the reasonableness of your fee when challenged in good faith to do so."

In other words, it's a good idea to listen when clients say lawyers charge too much. That's not just a BigLaw firm problem; that's every attorney's problem.

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