Last year, I joined a particular practice section of my state bar association. I won’t specifically identify this practice section except to say that many of its members are attorneys in smaller communities who basically take on anything that walks in the door.
This practice section has a very active listerv that is a real hoot to follow as lawyers sometimes send out desperate pleas for help with a matter they know virtually nothing about. Those listserv postings invariably end with the plea “does someone have a form that I could use?” Thus, my pet name for the practice section.
These listserv postings point out a sad fact of life in the legal profession. Lawyers often take on matters they probably have no business trying to handle. But, these postings also point up another fact of life that is true in virtually any practice area: an awful lot of legal work is done with forms or recycled work product!
Although I now feel like a magician who is betraying the profession by telling the audience how magic tricks are done, I must nevertheless point out that there an awful lot of routine insurance defense work is especially suited to using forms or recycled work product. Forms are routinely used for appearances, initial and closing letters to clients, medical records requests, withdrawals, orders, etc. Even more substantive documents can also be forms or recycled work product in large part.
Several years ago, I was reviewing an elaborate set of discovery documents that the lawyer had billed several hours to prepare. What made me suspect the documents were mostly recycled work product or form documents were the questions having to do with occupation and military service. You see the discovery was being directed to determine the injuries of a minor child.
Of course, the more routine forms are easy to spot. But how do you spot when a form or recycled work product is being used in discovery or more substantive documents such as a brief for a summary judgment motion?
In my basic legal bill review seminar, Reviewing Legal Bills Like a Pro©, one thing that I suggest claims professionals do is build a library of documents on each panel firm. They can refer to the saved documents when time is being billed to prepare documents to see if the document (or a large part of it) is not a form or is just recycled work product.
What lawyers who use forms or recycled work product should be doing is just billing the client for only the time it takes to modify the form or document. This is what the ethics of the legal profession very clearly provide. As ABA Ethics Opinion No. 93-379 makes clear, “A lawyer who is able to re-use old work product has not re-earned the hours previously billed and compensated when the work was first generated.”
In a perfect world, if all attorneys would simply honor the ethics of their profession when it comes to billing a client for services, there would be no need to build a documents library or even have billing guidelines. In fact, there would be no need for folks like me. I know some lawyers who would say that would indeed be a perfect world!