People often mock lawyers for their expensive billable hours. But, like many professionals, 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, attorney overbilling is unethical.
Some lawyers take the billable hour (the time a lawyer spends working on a client’s case) to the extreme. They bill the client for almost anything, such as merely thinking about the case.
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 the work he claimed. The lawyer represented homeowners’ associations. According to the story, he regularly billed the associations thousands of dollars for work that was never done.
The lawyer, according to an anonymous poster, would regularly bill clients when he, in fact, did not work at all. The attorney also instructed the law clerk to bill clients for research hours the attorney never did. He would estimate how long it would take to read a certain number of pages and calculate his numbers. The attorney would bill clients for the law clerk’s time at $150 an hour. However, he was paying law clerks only $15/hour.
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 the client’s behalf. 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.