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The Importance of Specificity

 

paigephotoDavid Paige
Managing Director, Legal Fee Advisors
Special Guest Post

A fee award in a recent case in the Eastern District of New York, Claudio v. Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District, provided examples of several common problems with attorney billing records.  Though the court found that the attorney’s hourly rate of $395 was reasonable, the court significantly reduced the number of hours billed because of “substantial problems” with the billing records.

The attorney billed half an hour for all but one of 68 phone calls between the attorney and his client.  The court found it “inconceivable” that each of these calls had taken half an hour.  In fact, based on its review of the attorney’s records, the court determined that attorney had billed half an hour for any task that took one-hour or less—including a pre-trial phone conference that lasted four minutes.

The attorney had also billed excessive amounts of time for other relatively simple tasks.  For instance, the attorney billed two hours for a two-sentence letter.  The court noted that it was possible that the attorney performed other tasks during the time billed.  If so, the attorney’s failure to specify these tasks on the billing records constituted block billing.  In any event, the court found the number of hours billed “unreasonable.”

Time spent on court appearances also appeared to be overbilled.  For example, the attorney billed 3.2 hours for an oral argument that lasted 47 minutes (not including preparation or consultation with the client, which were each billed separately).  The court conceded that the attorney’s billing entries could have included travel time, but noted that fees charged for travel time should be at half the attorney’s normal rate.  Because the court was unable to determine how much (if any) of the attorney’s billable hours were due to travel, the court found an across-the-board reduction was warranted.

Due to the problems discussed above and the “vagueness” (not further explained in the opinion) of some billing entries, the court reduced the attorney’s hours billed by 33%.

This case highlights the importance of specificity in billing entries.  For example, the court noted that the attorney might have performed other tasks during the apparently excessive blocks of time billed.  If so, and if the attorney had described those tasks, the court may have been less inclined to find the time billed excessive, even if the entries were block billed.  Similarly, the attorney could have been more specific in describing how much of the time billed for court appearances was actually spent on travel and perhaps added more detail to the other “vague” entries described in the opinion.  If the attorney had provided such detail, it is quite possible that he could have avoided the across the board reduction implemented here.

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David Paige is the Managing Director of Legal Fee Advisors, www.legalfeeadvisors.com.  David can be reached via email at dpaige@legalfeeadvisors.com.  David is among the nation’s foremost experts on the propriety of legal fees and billings. Over the course of his 25-plus-year career, David has guided Fortune 1000 companies on the some of the most complex and high-stakes billing issues and helped them develop the methodologies for achieving significant reductions in outside legal costs. In addition, he has served as a testifying expert in legal fee dispute cases.