How Higher Attorney to Support Staff Ratios May Result in Higher Legal Costs for Clients

Archer & Greiner gave layoff notices last week to 14 attorneys and 27 staff members, the New Jersey Law Journal (reg. req.) reports. Their last day of work will be April 1. The layoffs will bring the ratio of lawyers to secretaries from 2:1 to 4:1″ – ABA Law News Now, March 12, 2013

When law firms like many corporations were laying off staff during the height of the great recession a few years ago, I noted that law firm support staff were being terminated at a rate of 2:1 in terms of support staff to attorneys layoffs.   Apparently this support staff to attorney layoff ratio is becoming a trend.

In fact, one might say that a support staff ratio of 4:1 is becoming the “new normal” at many law firms.  Discussions I have had with attorneys around the country have confirmed this.  In fact, one attorney friend who is on the management committee of a mid-sized firm notes while his firm is not laying off staff, they are not filling support staff vacancies in order to get to this 4:1 attorneys to staff ratio.

Moving from a 2:1 to a 4:1 attorney to support staff ratio is a big jump and it begs a big question.  What happens to all the work that the addtional support staff did for the attorneys?  Did the practice of law suddenly change so that less support staff is required?  Does the use of “technology” suddenly make support staff twice as efficient as just as few years ago?  Or is there another answer to this question? Continue reading

Connecting the Dots in Legal Bill Reviews Can Reveal Disturbing Pattern

Connecting the dots is a fun children’s game that becomes much more serious when connecting the dots in legal bill reviews.

It has been my experience that billing issues seldom occur in isolation.  One billing issue is often connected to another and another.  Some billing issues also can be connected to even more serious litigation related issues which can not only affect the quality of work, but also the case results as well. Here are a few examples of individual billing issues that often can be connected to other billing or litigation related issues.

  • An absence of billing in .1  hour increments in a firm’s legal bills may be connected to a firm requirement that staff bill minimum charges for all activities (e.g., .2 minimum for all phone calls). If so, then it is likely that the firm also requires staff to bill minimum amounts for other tasks (e.g., .5 minimum for a letter, 2 hours for any court appearance).
  • An abundance of billing in even increments of time (e.g., .4, .6, or 1 hour) may be connected to impermissible rounding up of time.  And according to Prof. William Ross, considered the leading academic scholar on attorney fee billing issues, “liberal rounding up of small units of time can add up to large rip-offs for clients.” See Ross, The Honest Hour, Carolina Academic Press, at p. 164.  Moreover, it is considered as highly improbable that attorneys actually work more in even increments of time.   See Gerald Phillips, Reviewing a Law Firm’s Billing Practices, ABA Prof. Lawyer (Fall 2001)(“One does not work more often for a half-hour than for 20 or 40 minutes.  Only if there were rounding up would there be a concentration of half or full hour billings.”).
  • Attorneys billing at their attorney rate for work that can be done by paralegals is an impermissible billing practice.  See Klimbach v. Spherion Corp., 467 F.Supp.2d 434 (W.D.N.Y. 2006). But it also may be connected to the fact that the firm’s paralegals are not really trained paralegals. (Remember, anyone can call themselves a paralegal.)  If so, this calls into question the quality of the work as well as the time billed on those tasks that were performed by the firm’s paralegals.
  • Too many lawyers (or paralegals) working in a file is called “staff padding” (my term).  It is an ethically impermissible practice.  See ABA Annotated Model RPC (7th ed. 2011) at p. 73, Too Many Lawyers Working on a Matter.  It also may be connected to pressure firm management is applying to partners to provide work to idle firm staff.  As idle staff members may lack sufficient expertise or experience, it may also call into question the quality of their work or their efficiency which is connected to the amount of time billed to perform tasks.
  • Excessive research in a file is considered “task padding.”  See Wright v. U-Let-Us Skycap Services, Inc., 648 F.Supp 1216 (D. Colo. 1986).  While it certainly leads to excess costs, it may be connected to a more troubling issue which can affect the outcome of a case.  Excessive research may be a sign that the attorney really does not possess the legal knowledge the attorney claimed to have to be able to take on the case.

Finally, when all the individual fee billing issue dots are connected, consider what picture the connected dots realistically shows.  In particular, if the picture shows that certain attorneys cannot be trusted to correctly bill for their services, can they still be trusted on other matters? To find out the answer to this question, read (or re-read) my posts ‘Borrowing Time’ and Other Deceptive Practices and  Lying to Clients & Why Being Inefficient Has Its Own Rewards.