Attorney Misconduct, Billable Hours, Legal Ethics

Lawyer Billed 29-Hour Day To The Same Client And Didn’t Expect to Get Caught

Lawyers pad bills. They shouldn’t, but they do. Sometimes it’s an honest mistake born of bad record-keeping. Sometimes it’s a genuine cash grab. Other times it’s brought on by an honest desire to exact a tiny measure of revenge on a client whose indecisiveness or incompetence has made the lawyer’s life hell.

But when lawyers unethically pad these bills, there’s little chance of getting caught when there’s just an extra 30 minutes billed to “further work” here and there. But if a lawyer were to, say, start billing the same client for 29-hour days, it’s really only a matter of time until the jig is up.

If you think no lawyer is dumb enough to bill the same client for a 29-hour day, you’d be wrong….

Way back in March, Dayton-area attorney Ben Swift made the news, specifically the Dayton Daily News, as the highest-paid court-appointed attorney in the state of Ohio:

Attorney Ben Swift billed area courts for indigent defense work an average of nine hours a day, seven days a week for 365 days straight.

Raking in $142,945 in appointed counsel fees between March 2008 and February 2009, Swift ranks No. 1 in the state for representing people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer on their own, according to billing records kept by the Ohio Public Defender’s office.

“He’s probably billing more than humanly possible. That’s what it sounds like,” said Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Nick Kuntz, whose court was responsible for 60 percent of Swift’s indigent case load.

There are two fields of human endeavor where it’s unwise to stick your neck out. One is guillotine repair. The other is when you’re scamming someone. Making the most money of any court-appointed attorney in the state is not keeping the sort of low profile needed to nickel and dime a client (or, in this case the same entity that’s paying for all of your individual clients). By the way, we’re not saying Swift scammed the system, we are saying there’s some evidence suggesting that Swift scammed the system. He might well have a good explanation for these allegations:

Swift, who hires contract paralegals to assist him, said he zealously represents his clients.

“We routinely put in 10-, 11-hour (work) days,” he said.

Swift was also quoted in the article beaming with pride in his accomplishment, explaining that “[l]ike any other thing in life, if somebody is doing a good job, you’re liable to go back to them.” So, back in March, Swift went on the record defending his billings as a point of personal pride. Certainly these are aggressive hours, but there’s not necessarily a smoking gun suggesting fraud.

Until now.

A private southwest Ohio attorney who was appointed by various courts to handle the cases of people who couldn’t afford a lawyer is being disciplined after an audit found he had submitted bills for working 29 hours in a single day and more than 20 hours per day in other occasions.

The Dayton Daily News reported Thursday that a disciplinary action against Dayton attorney Ben Swift has been filed with the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Commissioners. The state’s highest court will determine Swift’s sanction.

In fairness, Daylight Saving Time is a bitch.

A complete audit found days where Swift billed for 29 hours of work, 23 hours of work, 21.5 hours of work and 21 hours of work.

Swift’s attorney cites sloppy record-keeping. If that fails, Swift will explain that his clock is only capable of telling you if a Weasley is in mortal peril.

Whether Swift’s alleged overbilling is a product of bad faith or aggressive stupidity simple negligence is a question for the Ohio Supreme Court. In any event, this case is another reminder of the wasteful practice of farming out public services to the private sector. Usually accompanied by platitudes to “free market competition” or “harnessing capitalism,” politicians farm out services as a justification for cutting spending on government workers. Government workers may not be perfect, but they usually bring home results cheaper than the private sector because there’s no requirement to turn a profit — a necessary addition to the cost when working in the private sector — and there’s less opportunity for fraud or mistake to create an overrun. The apocryphal $600 toilet seats in the Pentagon don’t happen just because the government is inefficient, they happen because a private contractor charges the government $600 for a toilet seat.

And, without knowing Swift’s rates, that toilet seat looks pretty cost-effective compared to five mythical hours of a lawyer’s time.

Dayton attorney highest-paid in Ohio for court appointments [Dayton Daily News]
Ohio attorney faces discipline in billing probe; allegedly billed state for 29-hour workday [Associated Press via The Republic]
Attorney who billed for 29-hour day did the work, his lawyer says [ABA Journal]

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