• January 30, 2014

Some people hate their lawyers because lawyers can be expensive and, sometimes, it is not merely hard but it is impossible for the client to see the value of the services provided.

Imagine, for example, that a client faces lawsuit claiming $9 million and his lawyers, over several months, bill $30,000 or so examining what the client can do, if anything, to lessen or eliminate that risk.  To many people, that seems like a lot of money to “examine what the client can do.”  To Richard Broms, a former client of Leonard Street (that is, Stinson Leonard, now), the lawyers’ bill seemed excessive so he terminated the law firm and refused to pay the bill.

Without more information, it is impossible to conclude who was in the right.  Without scrutinizing the details of what work was performed, we cannot reach any conclusions as to the its value.  (Investing $30,000 in order to try to reduce $9 million of exposure (0.3%) does not seem out of whack on its face.)  (Even if we were able to go through the bill, putting aside the question of what a reasonable hourly rate is, undoubtedly different people would reach different conclusions as to what billing seemed appropriate, what billing seemed excessive, and maybe some would even conclude that additional work could have been and should have been undertaken.)

This is an inherent challenge in a lot of legal work.  Clients cannot fathom how it could be that legal services are so expensive, particularly when there is no way to objectively or empirically pinpoint the “true value.”

In Stinson Leonard v. Broms, the case was decided favorably for the law firm by the Hennepin County District Court and the Court of Appeals.

For clients, the take-away from this lawsuit might be to complain early and often if you think your lawyers are over-billing.  The trial court and the Court of Appeals both found that Broms’ failure to object to the fees when he got the bills resulted in the law firm’s ability to prevail on a claim for “account stated.” But this is a Catch-22 for clients.  They do not have the expertise (nor the time) to fly-speck legal bills and they do not want to compound their legal fees hiring a lawyer to review other lawyers’ bills.  At a later date, however, when another lawyer does review the bills, the disappointed client might be foreclosed from his claim because he did not raise the issue earlier (as Broms was).

For lawyers, the “take-away” is to document your work and be prepared to defend it.  Clients’ 20/20 hindsight, “buyers’ remorse,” and just plain cheapskate chiselers are infrequent but inevitable in the purchase and sale of complex and intangible professional services.

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