Fee Fight


Do experienced lawyers work faster? Is the prosperity of society in jeopardy because of legal fees? Does it make more sense to buy an apartment in Bay Ridge or a house in Elmont?

These are not easy issues to resolve and their difficulty is demonstrated in a brief but fascinating ruling from a New York Supreme Court justice over whether a law firm should get $464,164 in fees for getting a lawsuit over parking at a housing complex dismissed and then having to litigate over the original fee request.

It seemed like a lot of money and yet it also seemed reasonable for good work and high-priced lawyers. It seemed like a menace to society and yet it was the sort of thing expected from lawyers.

This is only a 4-page ruling and yet you can feel the existential angst and the almost irresistible allure — the vacuum pressure — of opposing views that plagued the poor jurist who had to decide this issue. There’s a lot to unpack in this opinion and I’m not going to go over all of it. But I do want to highlight a few passages that we all need to consider.

First, there was this: “experienced partners charge more but work quicker.”

I’m taking that phrase out of context — it’s not clear who’s saying it — but my immediate reaction was: “Do they?”

Picture an elderly partner at your firm. Now picture the young hotshot fresh out of law school. Which one works faster on a simple dismissal petition? I know this is blatant ageism, but I can get away with it because I’m old.

But I’m not saying older guys are always slower. Clearly, what’s needed at every firm before engaging in litigation is speed testing. Find out who can do what kind of work fastest and best and then add the cost of testing to the legal fee request.

Then there was this description of the fee request: “shocking and disturbing, highway robbery without the six-gun.” Two paragraphs later the same author confirms a finding that the law firm’s hourly rates — “some of which topped $1,000 per hour” — were reasonable.

Reasonable highway robbery?

The social issue, however, is the one we all need to consider: “Society cannot devote such huge resources to such a simple court proceeding (which, after all, accomplished nothing) and survive, much less proper.”

And you thought immigration, the environment, income inequality and education were the problems.

But you have to look closely for the crux of this case. It’s in a parenthetical statement about the fee request amount: “incidentally, [it’s] significantly more than twice the $208,000 annual salary of a New York State Supreme Court Justice; 223% to be exact.”

When someone’s being exact, you know it’s important to them.

So the solution to fee disputes and their impact on the economy is obvious: Cut the pay of judges. If they’re making a lot less, those fee requests are going to look more and more outrageous.

Or raise the pay of judges. If they’re making a lot more, there will be no problems with those fee requests.

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