Casablanca — a story about a man caught between love and virtue came to mind this week after reading that law firm client Adam Victor had sued his lawyers over an allegedly inflated legal bill.
Not that a fee dispute between a lawyer and his client is anything new. All the same, I couldn’t help but recall that classic movie and particularly, Vichy Captain Louis Renault’s quip about how disingenuously shocked he was to discover gaming going on in nightclub owner Rick Blaine’s “Rick’s Café Américain.”
“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” Captain Renault said as a croupier hands him a pile of money. “Oh thank you, very much.”
But when it comes to love and virtue, and specifically love of money and virtue over fees — what to make of seeing lawyers again in a bad light?
And lawyers accused of overbilling? Should we be “shocked, shocked”? Hardly the novel recrimination — not when you consider that when it comes to whether fees are excessive, you have to shock a lawyer’s conscience.
So much, too, for embarrassment or for thinking of Philip Dormer Stanhope Chesterfield’s rejoinder against the Lord Shaftesbury’s “ridicule is the best test of truth; for that it will not stick where it is not just.”
“Churn that bill, baby!”
When the world’s largest law firm, DLA Piper, sued their client over $675,000 in unpaid legal bills, Adam Victor did what all clients do when pressed. He countered. In his case, he accused the firm of the “sweeping practice of overbilling.”
And thanks to pretrial discovery, disadvantageous exasperations happen. Once the firm turned over internal communications to Victor’s lawyers — the Bandini hit the fan.
Take DLA Piper lawyer Christopher Thomson’s email, which said of a colleague working on Victor’s bill, “Now Vince has random people working full time on random research projects in standard ‘churn that bill, baby!’ mode. That bill shall know no limits.” Oy vey!
When it comes lawyers and their billing practices, something previously explained at “more art than science,” the topic is overripe — indeed, redolent of that proverbial mackerel stinking in the moonlight.
It’s the stuff of the credulous honest heart fancying a belief in “the lawyer who under-charged . . . and other fairy tales.”
To avoid such astonishments, then, clients would do well to heed what Mae West once observed, “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”
Or in a more serious-minded vein, to note longtime lawyer blogger Carolyn Elefant’s remonstrations on the matter of lawyer overbilling — “so long as lawyers are driven by a desire to maximize revenue, without regard to the client’s best interest, then clients will suffer.”
To which the DLA Piper/Victor fee dispute unsurprisingly leads, it’s the question begged by Forrest Wickman, a.k.a. the Explainer at Slate Magazine, who asks, “When did lawyers get such a bad reputation?”
Looking chronologically, culturally and humorously at what underpins the practice known as “Churn That Bill, Baby!”, Wickman provides his answers.
But if Wickman’s explanations still don’t suffice, there’s always this:
“A man phones a lawyer and asks, “How much would you charge for just answering three simple questions?”
The lawyer replies, “A thousand dollars.”
“A thousand dollars!” exclaims the man. “That’s very expensive isn’t it?”
“It certainly is,” says the lawyer. “Now, what’s your third question?”
Photo Credits: “Screenshot of the title screen of the trailer,” at Wikipedia Commons via public domain; “paul henreid, ingrid bergman & humphrey bogart – casablanca 1943,” by Raoul Luoar at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “Danger! Manure!,” by whatleydude at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “Mrs. Grace Herr churns butter at her farm home, Butter1web.jpg” at Wikipedia Commons, by the National Agricultural Library of the United States Department of Agriculture‘s Agricultural Research Service. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.