Billable Hours, Boutique Law Firms, Divorce Train Wrecks, Family Law, Lawyer of the Day

Lawyer of the Day: Suing a Client for Nonpayment of Fees — and Ending Up Owing the Client Money

Glenn C. Lewis: he's a billable-hour machine.

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported on the legal misadventures of prominent D.C. attorney Glenn Lewis (no relation to the Canadian R&B singer, as far as we know). According to the Post, “Glenn C. Lewis is an acknowledged titan of the D.C. area divorce bar, a former president of the Virginia Bar Association who boasts that he is the most expensive lawyer in the region: $850 an hour. He has an impressive office in the District and an array of high-profile clients.”

One would expect a lawyer of Lewis’s stature and success to have impeccable judgment. But it appears that recently he made a serious misjudgment. He decided to sue a former client for an extra $500,000 in fees and interest, after having already received some $378,000 from that client.

Unfortunately for Glenn Lewis, that client was a lawyer — and decided to strike back. By the end of the whole episode, Lewis ending up owing his former client money — an amount in the six figures….

From the Post piece:

[The client] hired another former state bar president, Bernard J. DiMuro, who dug through Lewis’s billing records and hired two more divorce bar giants – including another former state bar president — as his experts. The experts said Lewis had done a poor job and didn’t deserve nearly $900,000 for his work.

In Fairfax Circuit Court on Friday, Lewis capitulated. He agreed to pay his former client [to settle the case].

Lewis started the legal action first, by suing the former client, Steve Firestone, for $500,000 in claimed unpaid fees plus interest. Lewis’s bill for Firestone’s divorce was $627,000, and he sought an extra $253,000 in interest, for a total of almost $900,000. Firestone had already paid Lewis $378,000.

We’re not divorce lawyers, but even $378,000 seems high, for a divorce involving modest assets and no trial. Firestone’s ex-wife paid just $73,000 for her legal representation in the case. This wasn’t exactly the McCourt divorce, involving hundreds of millions of dollars (and the fate of the Los Angeles Dodgers).

And Firestone’s attorneys did find evidence of possible overbilling. Billing records revealed days when Lewis billed for 31, 40, 39, and even 71 hours in a day. Last time we checked, a day had only 24 hours (some of them presumably spent sleeping, eating, and going to the bathroom — although maybe you can bill for the last two if you’re working through them). From a commenter who requested coverage of this story:

[G]ive people [here] a chance to comment that they bust their butts to reach 2,000 hours, and this guy bills 71 hours in a single day. Besides, if the conduct is as alleged, there HAS to be a discipline hearing the future.

Lewis explained that these anomalies were due to “‘block billing,’ in which he entered the time for many days all at once.” But this explanation seems open to question. It’s not unusual to enter time belatedly, despite the efforts of many firms to push lawyers towards timely entry of time — but usually you try to allocate the hours over the days that you worked them, as opposed to just treating them as worked on the day of entry. (But it has been a while since we worked at firms; if we’re wrong about this, feel free to let us know, in the comments.)

Live by the sword, die by the sword. In the end, the discovery process — which surely Glenn Lewis has used successfully over the years, to wear down his adversaries — is what brought Lewis to his knees:

As the suit progressed in Fairfax Circuit Court, Lewis’s lawyers angered Fairfax judges by failing to respond to basic requests and orders. The judges started slapping Lewis’s lawyers with financial sanctions. First $2,000. Then another $2,000. Then $5,000, $7,500 and finally a $10,515 hit after Lewis failed to appear for his deposition last month.

Lewis said his lawyer, Michael P. Freije, had released him from appearing, although he had been subpoenaed. Freije told Judge David S. Schell there had been a misunderstanding, but Schell was clearly upset and ordered Lewis to appear in DiMuro’s office the following week as well as pay the highly unusual fifth court-imposed sanction.

Lewis said he couldn’t be there, because of family obligations. Rather than defy the court, he said, he agreed to pay Firestone and settled the case.

Lewis agreed to pay Firestone more than $102,000 — probably not the result Lewis was hoping for when he sued Firestone for $500,000.

Moral of the story (and one demonstrated by other stories we’ve previously covered): think long and hard before suing an ex-client for nonpayment.

High-priced lawyer sues former client, then agrees to pay him $102,000 [Washington Post]

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