From Doug Austin at eDiscovery Daily:
June 3, 2015 – Remember when we asked the question whether a blended document review rate of $466 per hour is excessive? Many of you weighed in on that one and that post is still our most viewed of all time. Marking up the billing rate for reviewers over 500 percent may or may not also be unacceptable, depending on who you talk to. But, everyone agrees that billing more hours than you actually worked is a bad thing.
According to a new article by Gina Passarella in The Legal Intelligencer (Are Contract Attorney Markups Of Any Concern to Clients?), a former Drinker Biddle & Reath contract attorney received a two-year suspension last week for overbilling a client on document review. The attorney worked for the firm from 2011 through 2012, where he was paid $40 an hour and charged out to a client at $245 an hour.
If you’re whipping out your calculator, I’ll save you the trouble – that’s a 513 percent markup (rounded up).
But, that’s not why he was suspended. It turns out that the attorney logged more time into the firm’s time accounting system than he was logged into the firm’s eDiscovery system and had overbilled for the 12 months he was at the firm. Drinker Biddle terminated the attorney within days of discovering the discrepancy.
But, according to Passarella’s article, “the legal community’s reaction focused not so much on the behavior as on the lawyer’s billing rate… Some have described a 513 percent markup as ‘stratospheric’ while others have said a firm’s internal profitability is none of the client’s business as long as the client feels it is getting the perceived value from the business transaction.”
Drinker Biddle chairman Andrew C. Kassner defended the markup, citing overhead costs and said that the firm works hard to ensure value for the client and provided a lower-cost option to the client by using a contract lawyer rather than an associate.
Unlike Mark Antony (the Roman emperor, not the singer), I don’t come to bury Drinker Biddle in this article, many law firms mark review up considerably. And, as Passarella notes, “Drinker Biddle was certainly an early adopter of the value proposition espoused by the Association of Corporate Counsel and others, becoming one of the first law firms to create a chief value officer position in 2010 and forming an associate training program post-recession that didn’t charge clients for the first four months of a first-year’s time.”
However, Passarella’s article does quote three individuals who questioned the current billing model: 1) a former general counsel who, while he was in-house, “decoupled” the use of contract attorneys from outside counsel, 2) a former BigLaw attorney who became disenchanted with the large-firm business model and created his own firm which focuses on providing better value to clients, and 3) an Altman Weil consultant who questioned the $245 value for document review, noting that “if it were really important they wouldn’t be using a $40-an-hour lawyer”. Perhaps we should revisit the discussion as to whether it’s time to ditch the per hour model for document review?
As for the overbilling, Kassner said the firm paid back the client all that it was charged for the overbilled time as well as for any time the attorney charged on the matter.
Gregory P. Bufithis is the Founder & Chairman of The Posse List. He has over 25 years of experience in intellectual property law and digital media in the U.S. and Europe.