Ah, the billable hour. It is the bane of many attorneys’ existence, and almost anyone who has spent time within a law firm has their own story about… ethical lapses surrounding billing. Maybe it’s something seemingly small or benign like always rounding up when tracking working time or billing through bathroom breaks (or Farmville breaks) because, hey, your brain was still thinking about the issue. Or maybe it’s billing the exact number of hours a partner believes a task should take, no matter how quickly you are actually able to charge through it.
The perverse incentives created by billing by the hour (especially when the attorneys involved have billable requirements for either their job security or their expected bonus) for legal work has been well tread, but sometimes a document review attorney has a really clever excuse….
This tale of padding gone wrong (subscription required) comes from California, where an attorney was placed in charge of a document review project, and then it all started to go awry.
She began making false entries in the firm’s timekeeping system about how much time she was spending on the [document] review in order to enhance and meet her billable hours.
Ut-oh. Well that doesn’t seem like it is going to end well. Don’t worry though, Little Miss Overbiller has a plan to explain away the discrepancy — blame it on the document review software. Makes some sense, lawyers distrust technology, so blaming a program that the powers-that-be probably don’t understand seems like a decent way to cover misdeeds. It must be the scary technology that caused the problem, not the human using it.
You might think that after managing to blame software for her issues, Little Miss Overbiller would have learned her lesson and all future time entries would be pristine and above reproach.
After her [document review software] account was reset, the firm discovered that some of her subsequent entries were for work that was not authorized or valueless. An investigation revealed that such discrepancies existed over several months in the cases of other clients as well
… and that’s why our Little Miss Overbiller is the subject of a Bar Discipline Roundup.
And while my guess is that the reference to the document review work being “not authorized or valueless” probably refers to billing more than the approved number of hours for a particular matter or leaving the document review software running while no documents were being coded, our tipster does note with glee the description of doc review as “valueless.” Paging William Henig.
Now, I don’t know if the attorney involved in this case was a salaried employee or subject to the paid-by-the-hour hell that many doc review monkeys face, but the point still remains: whatever screwed-up incentives law firm associates might have to creatively meet their billing targets, these issues are supercharged when your weekly paycheck is directly impacted. Your take-home pay for 40 hours a week might just make ends meet (or not, depending on just how low paying the job may be), but at 50 hours — a little extra time each day — you may buy yourself some financial breathing room. And while the ethical obligations surrounding billing remain the same for hourly paid document review attorneys — and the overwhelming majority of contract attorneys take that obligation very seriously — the incentive structure encourages playing fast and loose. Though this breach of ethics still isn’t acceptable, I can certainly understand the temptation.
UPDATE (12:00 p.m.): Here’s the opinion, which explains that Little Miss Overbiller, an associate at a law firm, was not directly benefiting financially from the overbilling; instead, she “apparently made the false entries to enhance and meet [her] billable hours.”
Bar Discipline Roundup: Three attorneys reprimanded [NC Lawyers Weekly]
Earlier: Biglaw Firm’s New Timekeeping Policy May Screw Associates Out Of Bonuses
Creative Billing: Biglaw’s Perennial Profit Engine
Lawyer Who Billed Client $900 For Sex Reached For Comment
Shocking — Or Not — Tales of Wasteful Biglaw Billing
ExamSoft Debacle Aside, 5 Reasons Lawyers Should Embrace Technology
Is It Okay To Take A Low-Paying Contract Attorney Job?
Alex Rich is a T14 grad and Biglaw refugee who has worked as a contract attorney for the last 7 years… and counting. If you have a story about the underbelly of the legal world known as contract work, email Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to follow Alex on Twitter @AlexRichEsq