The Business Litigation Blog

When Overbilling Becomes Unethical

Lawyers are often mocked for their expensive billable hours.  But, like many professionals, from doctors to mechanics, the cost of the work relates to the quality of the work.  Normally, the maxim that “Good work isn’t cheap, and cheap work isn’t good” rings true.    

However, some lawyers take the billable hour (which is the time that a lawyer spends directly working on a client’s case) to the extreme, billing for almost anything relating to the client, such as merely thinking about the case while riding the elevator into the office.  

Unethical Billing

Beyond that are lawyers who bill for costs that they never incurred or time they never spent working on a case.  The L.A. Times recently published a piece about a lawyer who intentionally billed his clients without doing work he claimed to have done for them.  The lawyer represented homeowners' associations.  According to the story, he regularly billed the associations for tens of thousands of dollars of legal work that was never done.

The lawyer, according to an anonymous poster who claimed to be a law clerk at the law firm, would regularly double bill, or bill clients when he in fact did no work at all.  The attorney also instructed the law clerk to bill clients for research hours the attorney was supposed to do but never did by estimating how long it would take to read a certain number of pages.  The attorney would bill clients for the law clerk’s time at $150 an hour while the law clerk was in fact only paid $15 an hour.

Ethical Violations

It is both unprofessional and unethical for an attorney to breach his duty to a client by overbilling or outright lying about what the lawyer is doing on behalf of the client.  An attorney who is found to have committed an ethical violation such as this faces internal discipline from his employing firm for damaging the reputation of the firm and its relationship with its clients.  More importantly, this would subject the attorney to discipline from his or her state bar association.

Depending on the type and severity of the violation, the bar association would have to determine the appropriate discipline.  Following an investigation, the bar’s disciplinary committee will select any number of forms of discipline-- such as disciplinary letters, requiring the attorney to make a public apology, taking his license temporarily, requiring him to retake the bar, or even taking his license forever.  

Bar associations, as well as most lawyers, take their professional responsibilities very seriously.  The duty to clients is very important because clients put great trust in the judgment and advice of their attorneys.  Clients look to attorneys for their knowledge of the law and strong analytical skills to help the client navigate unusual circumstances.  For most clients, dealing with a legal matter can be extremely stressful, so it is important to serve their interests diligently and professionally.  

More Questions

If you have additional questions about legal malpractice or about ethical issues about attorneys, contact the attorneys at the Patterson Law Firm, LLC.

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