find the latest legal job
Banking Associate - 1-6PQE - Allen & Overy
Category: Banking and Finance Law | Location: United Kingdom
· Banking Associate - 1-6 PQE - Allen & Overy
View details
Academic Dean and Head of School of the TC Beirne School of Law
Category: Other | Location: Brisbane QLD 4000
· An outstanding opportunity · Provide educational, research and organisational leadership
View details
Senior Property Lawyer I Commercial Litigator
Category: Property Law | Location: Arncliffe NSW 2205
· Rapidly growing law firm, working with a highly experienced team in a high growth industry across all areas of property and strata law
View details
Senior Property Lawyer I Commercial Litigator
Category: Property Law | Location: All Sydney NSW
· Rapidly growing law firm, working with a highly experienced team in a high growth industry across all areas of property and strata law
View details
Senior Property Lawyer I Commercial Litigator
Category: Property Law | Location: Sydney NSW 2000
· Rapidly growing law firm, working with a highly experienced team in a high growth industry across all areas of property and strata law
View details
When billable hours go bad ...

When billable hours go bad ...

If there's one topic we know all lawyers love, it's the good old billable hour. And while we may say this with an ever-so-slight hint of sarcasm, we have decided to pay homage to the…

If there's one topic we know all lawyers love, it's the good old billable hour. And while we may say this with an ever-so-slight hint of sarcasm, we have decided to pay homage to the oft-maligned subject of time billing by giving a few examples of exactly why, for some, billable hours might not be such a great idea. Here are our top five.

What? There's only 24 hours in one day?

An American lawyer, Kristin Ann Stahlbush, was suspended earlier this year for, quite simply, working far too hard. Now, while grit, ambition and a willingness to burn the candle at both ends wouldn't ordinarily be an offence, Stahlbush raised some eyebrows when her time billing averages equated to her having worked about 100 hours a week, every week of the year.

Stahlbush even billed the local court by whom she was appointed for more than 24 hours a day on several occasions, including five bills for days containing more than 20 hours of work. Unsurprisingly, Stahlbush was investigated by the Ohio Bar Association and suspended for two years.

What's the secreat? Victoria's Secret

Dodgy billing practices are certainly not a new phenomenon, and even high-profile and apparent pillars of the community have been brought down for stretching the six minutes. Webster Hubbell, a former Arkansas lawyer and politician, who also served as mayor and was appointed by Bill Clinton as chief justice of Arkansas State Supreme Court in 1983, went from holding this prestigious post in the Clinton Justice Department to, well, prison.

In 1995, Hubbell was convicted of stealing almost half a million dollars from his clients and his own firm by billing for time he had never worked, and spending up big on fur items and lingerie at Victoria's Secret then flogging it off as a work expense. Hubbell was sentenced to 21 months in prison, though one former Arkansas Supreme Court judge argued it was "unfair" to single out Hubbell when timesheet fraud is so common amongst lawyers, yet so rarely prosecuted.

Oh dear, Clifford Chance, oh dear ...

In 2002, UK law firm Clifford Chance was cast in a dubious light when someone leaked a memo being highly critical of, amongst a swathe of other things, the firm's annual billing target of 2420 hours. Now, that's a lot of hours in one year, especially if you want to take holidays and not work weekends. In fact, it equates to almost 11 hours a day when you take out weekends and annual leave.

So, here is an excerpt from the leaked memo - no explanation needed: "Associates stated that the requirement is profoundly unrealistic, particularly in slow areas of the firm. Moreover, associates found the stress on billable hours dehumanising and verging on an abdication of our professional responsibilities insofar as the requirement ignores pro bono work and encourages "padding" of hours, inefficient work, repetition of tasks, and other problems. Associates expressed concerns that the requirement promotes misallocation of work to senior associates who "need" the hours when less expensive junior associates could do the work. Associates also stated that partners care only about associates' billable hours."

Sound familiar?

Dodgy divorce lawyer caught by putting foot in mouth

An American lawyer found herself in the midst of a billing scandal after she represented a husband in a divorce. Once the matter had ended, the lawyer gave the husband a detailed bill of the hours she had worked on the matter. Soon after, the wife called up the husband and asked if she could have a look at his bill to compare it to hers. It soon emerged that the wife's lawyer had billed twice as many hours for the same deposition, and twice as many hours for court attendances, than the husband's lawyer. In short, the wife's bill was double the husband's.

Unfortunately for the wife's lawyer, he got caught. How? He let slip to the wife's father, the day before trial, that "we have to settle because I didn't prepare for trial." But the matter did go to trial, and lo and behold the wife's lawyer billed her for 10 hours of "trial preparation". The wife pointed this out and she was promptly refunded the money.

Keddies and other compo rip-offs

Australia, of course, is not immune to dodgy billing practices, with a few high-profile cases emerging in the last couple of years. Foremost amongst them are the Keddies investigations, in which numerous clients of the firm have come forward and said they were, amongst other things, not told about their settlement details, not given itemised bills - or any bills at all - and were overcharged.

In one particular case, 80 per cent of a client's compensation payout went to the firm in legal fees and other expenses. Other claims included being charged $60 for a client welcome letter, a $49 fee for reading a client's thank-you card, and multiple billing of clients for the same expenses. There were also cases involving clients in Asia, a number of which were settled for around $300,000, with the firm taking a helping of about $250,000. Many of the complaints against Keddiess disappeared and the firm is known to have repaid at least some of the overbilled amounts.

Then, of course, there is the ongoing case of David Forster, the lawyer who acted for victims of the Navy Voyager disaster. Justice Karin Emerton in the Victorian Supreme Court recently said Forster's former firm, Hollows Lawyers, had committed "serious irregularities in relation to trust money". Some clients had their disbursements billed twice, final statements were not sent out, discounts from barristers were not passed on, and the firm billed different clients for the same work. Some billing even went beyond 24 hours a day. Despite this, the judge found that the breaches were not deliberate. He had, apparently, simply paid insufficient attention to detail when trust accounting and was "unduly hasty" in taking his professional fees.

Like this story? Read more:

Book commemorates diamond milestone for WA law society

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

When billable hours go bad ...
lawyersweekly logo
Promoted content
Recommended by Spike Native Network
more from lawyers weekly
Gavel, legal book, criminal lawyers
Jan 19 2018
Three criminal lawyers named NSW magistrates
The NSW Attorney-General has announced the appointment of three new local court magistrates. ...
Warning
Jan 18 2018
Lawyer highlights ‘unintended consequences’ on SSM estate planning
A succession lawyer has warned that the right for same-sex couples to legally marry could have a sub...
drug rehabilitation services available in rural and remote communities
Jan 18 2018
ALS survey shines spotlight on insufficient rehabilitation services
A new survey posted by the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) has revealed an alarming insight into ...
APPOINTMENTS
Allens managing partner Richard Spurio, image courtesy Allens' website
Jun 21 2017
Promo season at Allens
A group of lawyers at Allens have received promotions across its PNG and Australian offices. ...
May 11 2017
Partner exits for in-house role
A Victorian lawyer has left the partnership of a national firm to start a new gig with state governm...
Esteban Gomez
May 11 2017
National firm recruits ‘major asset’
A national law firm has announced it has appointed a new corporate partner who brings over 15 years'...
opinion
Nicole Rich
May 16 2017
Access to justice for young transgender Australians
Reform is looming for the process that young transgender Australians and their families must current...
Geoff Roberson
May 11 2017
The lighter side of the law: when law and comedy collide
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much that is amusing about the law, writes Geoff Rober...
Help
May 10 2017
Advocate’s immunity – without fear or without favour but not both
On 29 March 2017, the High Court handed down its decision in David Kendirjian v Eugene Lepore & ...