One of the most common complaints I get from individuals who submit gigantic legal bills for me to review is about the number of attorneys who billed to work on their case.
The most recent variant of this complaint came from a couple who hired an attorney whom they had determined had the requisite knowledge and experience to handle their case. But as it turned out, the attorney promptly handed over most of the work in the case to other attorneys in his office. And as the case drug on (and on), more and more attorneys wound up working on their case.
The couple thought that they were being overcharged because too many attorneys were working on their case. They had put this question to the attorney they had initially hired, but did not feel that had gotten a satisfactory response. And because of this issue as well as other billing issues, they turned to me.
There should be no question that participation by too many lawyers in a matter can lead to overcharging. See Annotated Model RPC (8th ed. 2015) at p. 81, Comments to Rule 1.5 (“Participation by too many lawyers is another kind of overlawyering that can result in an unreasonable fee.”). But how many lawyers is “too many?” The examination of this issue should start with an examination of the question of what is the appropriate level or mix of staffing for a matter.
Both the appropriate level or mix of staffing (i.e., the number and level of attorneys – partners and senior and junior associates) to be used in the matter should be discussed and agreed upon at the outset of the representation. But what is the appropriate level of staffing in a particular type of matter? I have blogged many times in the past about the appropriate level of staffing and I would refer you to these prior past blog posts.
Once the level and mix of staffing needed to handle the case has been agreed to, then absent changed circumstances, the defined legal team should be the ones who will work on your case (as needed) until it is concluded. This is to promote continuity and save on legal costs.
But what about the standard language in most fee agreements that gives the lawyer in charge of your case authority to add staff to work on your case as he sees fit? That authority may be fine for assigning certain one-off types of tasks or projects to lower billing associates that may crop up from time to time (e.g., summarizing the contents of discovery documents). However, this language should not used to bring in additional attorneys, such as a partner, to work on your mater on a regular basis without your approval.
So how do you determine if an additional partner or any additional attorney staff is warranted? In my view, adding additional attorney staff beyond that initially agreed upon should only be for one of four reasons. Those four reasons will be covered in my next blog post on this subject.