LA Lawyer Suspended for Charging Legal Fees for Non-Legal Work

Usually it seems pretty self-explanatory that legal fees are to be charged for legal work, but Ms. Katherine M. Guste of Louisiana got herself in hot water (gumbo?) with the Supreme Court of Louisiana for charging and refusing to refund fees for non-legal work. According to the court’s opinion enforcing a two-year suspension [pdf], Ms. Guste provided legal services to prepare a power of attorney and represent her client in the matter of a hit-and-run accident. Thereafter,

[Guste] continued to provide services fro Mr. Perniciaro, including assisting him in canceling the power of attorney, taking him to the bank and running other errands with him, and packing and storing his personal and household belongings in preparation for his move from one nursing home to another.

There was no written agreement for either the legal or non-legal services, although apparently both parties agreed to the same hourly rate of $125 for both types of service. There was, however, a significant question as to his mental capacity based on the fact that the client was a victim of Huntington’s Disease, noted by the court as “a genetic brain disorder that results in the progressive loss of both cognitive functions and physical control.”

So between charging legal fees for non-legal work, having no written agreement, and not keeping an accounting of her time, it seems like Ms. Guste really made a mess of things in this situation. Generally these situations are less black and white than the court’s opinion makes it out to be, but I think we can all agree that this was not an optimal way of interacting with the client. It makes me wonder about other quasi-business transactions clients request of their lawyers, and what would be the best way to respond to such a request. Have you ever had a client request non-legal services? How did you respond?

(photo: Shutterstock: 93796168)

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  • http://attenzalaw.com/ Karen L

    WTF? Why would anyone do this but for pure greed? I am without words.

    And no, I have never had a client ask me to do a non-legal service for him or her.

  • Sarah

    I am a lawyer who owns a non-legal business as well. My solution seemed obvious: Never do legal work for clients of the business, and never sell business services to a legal client. I have to add that no law client has ever asked me to run an errand, but that if I ever did that it would be a personal favor, and I would never bill for it.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    If a client asked me to do non-legal work like running errands, and if for some reason I decided I was willing, you can bet I would charge my regular hourly rate. However, I would make sure the client understood that I was doing work that I considered to be non-legal work, that he or she could certainly get that work done elsewhere for a lot less money, and tell him or her that the only way I would do it would be at my usual hourly rate.

    In that case, assuming the client still wanted to pay me to get their laundry, I wouldn’t anticipate a problem.

  • http://www.garywinterlaw.com Gary Winter

    @Karen L: in my business and estate practice, I regularly have work that is not pure law. It doesn’t mean I’m greedy – just trying to provide the most value to my clients. Granted, I haven’t been driving miss daisy for $240/hour either…

    @Sarah: eliminating cross selling from your legal to non-legal business is a huge disadvantage and not the result the opinion requires. Why are lawyers so prone to jump to eliminating something entirely instead of asking how can we do this fairly, ethically and profitably?

    @Sam: my read on the opinion is that informed consent may not solve the problem of an unconscionable fee. Opinion seemed to indicate that the lawyer should have disengaged because it would be in best interest of client.

    What do you think about having a consulting business that’s a separate business from your practice? I’ve considered this seriously. It’s absolutely commonplace among big CPA firms (who are hiring lawyers to do litigation management consulting) and big law. See http://www.legalcareerweb.com/law-careers/what-else-is-out-there-legal-career-alternatives-xxiv-litiga.html

    I’m not going to consult on what groceries to buy, but I might consult on a variety of other things I have specific knowledge and experience with: marketing, communications, aviation, etc.

  • http://www.miamidivorce.com Charlotte Karlan

    When an elder law client needs our help to retrieve documents, his laptop, and personal belongings from his home to assist him in the processing of his elder law documents, applications for Medicaid, placement in assisted living facilities, and other such services that he is unable to perform physically (or mentally), and when that need falls on our office because there is no family member standing in a place to give such assistance, how is that not the performance of legal services if the services are performed by support staff or charged at rate charged for work done by support staff?