Billing is the bane of every lawyer’s existence. But even if creativity has a place in the legal profession, billing is one task best left bland. From recording billable hours to explaining fees to clients and reviewing the bill all over again, billing is rarely fun and provides little creative outlet. That is, unless you’re doing it wrong.
Some lawyers attempt to spice up the otherwise monotonous task of billing while padding their own pockets in the process. A few lawyers took this creative license a little too far — and ended up losing their own.
In July, a Tennessee lawyer was suspended from the practice of law for a year after charging clients for services that included 20 hours watching episodes of the television crime series 48 Hours.
The Tennessee lawyer racked up a legal bill of $140,000 in just two and a half months of a wrongful death suit without ever taking witness statements or depositions, preparing expert statements, or discovery requests.
How had this lawyer spent her time?
Instead, she documented copious billable hours watching television, waiting in hospitals for medical records, and surfing the internet for information on strangulation.
To back the legitimacy of the gargantuan legal bill, the lawyer pointed to a particular time entry on her billing statement that was spent watching a five-hour documentary on the Peterson Staircase Murder in North Carolina. Her motion failed to address the 12.5 hours she spent watching 48 Hours episodes on similar spousal homicides, 4 hours watching four 48 Hours episodes about asphyxia, or another 3.5-hour time entry where she reported watching these same 48 Hours episodes a second time. That works out to $5,000 just for watching 48 Hours.
The court called this “a prodigious amount of wheel-spinning.” Nevertheless, the lawyer remained adamant that she had done nothing wrong, asking a judge, “since when is television not a respectable avenue for research anyway?”
While creative research avenues might arguably have some value to a case, other billing infractions are more blatant violations of the ethics rules.
Perhaps the most well-known recent case is that of Webster L. Hubbell, a former Associate Attorney General, chair of the Arkansas Bar Association’s ethics committee, and a partner at the renowned Rose Law Firm.
A paper trail linked Hubbell to overbillings that — allegedly — went to personal merchandise such as lingerie and items from high-priced boutiques. He submitted more than 400 fraudulent bills to cover credit card purchases, including those made at Victoria’s Secret and a fur salon.
After being convicted of stealing $394,000 for time he never worked and claiming personal indulgences as business expenses, Hubbell agreed to pay $300,000 to his old law firm in restitution — a high price even for furs and lingerie.
This case is by no means unique or isolated. A North Salem lawyer with offices in Westchester County and the Bronx lost his law license after being accused of, among other things, improperly depositing clients’ escrow money in his personal account, and he spent $131,000 at gas stations, Circuit City, The Athlete’s Foot, restaurants, gym clubs, Home Depot, Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie retailer, and a jewelry store.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for DeGrasse, who was convicted of larceny in 2007, criminal possession and identity theft in 2009, and charges of fraud surrounding a mortgage scam in 2012.
If DeGrasse isn’t a real-life Saul Goodman, I don’t know who is.
Another lawyer — this one anonymous — boasted to the Times of racking up more than £10,000 a year (the equivalent of $15,000) on expensive shirts, fancy meals, champagne, and, yes, underwear.
Perhaps it would be more prudent to seek out a job at a law firm that will just give you that stuff without all the messy ethical issues.
Above the Law was quick to follow up with a Clifford Chance spokesperson, who said the allowance was part of the firm’s reimbursement for lawyers who are working late far from home. While a spokesman for the law firm denied having an official “underwear policy,” Above the Law revealed that “what sounds like one of the greatest Biglaw perks ever is in fact just a pedestrian acknowledgment of basic hygiene.” Hygienically motivated or not, Clifford Chance has yet to deny their policy reimbursing lawyers for undergarments — among other expenses such as fresh clothes — when they are “working hard and working late.”
What else should you be reimbursed for when work takes you away from home?
According to one lawyer and devoted father: missing tuck-in time.
This particular lawyer-dad decided to bump his billing rate to five billable hours at $300 per hour every time work took him away from being able to tuck in his kids. 111th District Judge Raul Vasquez of Laredo gave the green light to bill $1,500 for each time the lawyer didn’t get to tuck his children in, but the ruling was later overturned by a panel of three appeals judges — two of whom were mothers.
You Can’t Bill for That
Some lawyers have even tried to bill their clients for air-conditioning costs, and celebrities are no exception. Former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s bankruptcy lawyers asked the court to approve more than $2.6 million in fees and expenses for 7,200 billable hours of work over ten months — the equivalent of working 24 hours a day over the course 300 straight days. Included in these charges was the cost of running an air conditioner on a weekend.
Vick’s fee was subsequently reduced by a disapproving judge to a mere $1.5 million.
American Lawyer highlighted a few other questionable billing practices that have become routine at many Am Law 200 firms. Creative billings include everything from a VIP box at with catered food and alcohol that was billed as “dinner while attending a deposition in Indianapolis,” thinking while showering, and $6,000 for “morale boosters throughout trial.” One lawyer billed $1,900 to recharge his own Starbucks card over the course of a bankruptcy matter. Another entry on a bill aptly titled “pastry gift” was a cupcake sent to an insurance librarian who had carried out research for a case.
There is no limit to the new charges you can think up with a little creativity. Or you could direct your creativity elsewhere, possibly on actually winning your client’s case.
Featured image: “ Wooden gavel, calculator and handcuffs on white table. financial fraud concept” from Shutterstock.