Legal expenses – perception is reality

There are at least two components of legal costs:  Fees and expenses. When one is clearly out of line, the other is perceived to be out of line. Perception is reality.

Much has been written about the $1,000 per hour legal fee. It’s out of line, too high, much too expensive, etc. But the writers fail to assess the competitive market for those services and whether those services have some very special expertise connected with the fee that justifies the fee. If, for example, you’re in a "bet the company" situation, you want the best lawyer you can get. If you’re in a criminal trial as was OJ Simpson, you want a particular lawyer and team of lawyers. You will pay the asking price.

If you’re facing a normal contract dispute, one might consider this a commodity type of legal battle, one not requiring the best lawyer in the state; a good lawyer will suffice and the cost of his/her services will be adjusted downward accordingly. Some call this commodity pricing.

If you’re a very large bankrupt company, you need specialized professional expertise. According to Bankruptcy Court filings (attorney fees need to be approved by the judge), many lawyers in this arena are receiving $1,000 per hour. Nothing out of the ordinary here…. this is reality. 

However, when these same filings show application for expense reimbursements that are out of the ordinary, then questions arise. For example, why should the bankrupt estate pay for first class airfare, for normal photocopying charges, for faxes, for overnight hotel stays at the Waldorf-Astoria, etc.? Many such expenses are considered part of a firm’s normal overhead; many such expenses can be lowered by conducting oneself in the "normal course of business," such as charging for coach airfare (not first class or business fare), hotel charges (at a Marriott, etc. rather than the Waldorf).

Any "over" charges should be at the lawyer’s expense not the expense of the estate. After all, isn’t that why the lawyer is receiving the larger per hour fees? It’s when the lawyer begins to "nickel and dime" the client or take advantage by charging more than "ordinary" expenses, the perception of over-billing extends over to the fee itself. When asked, I usually advise my clients to reduce the expense charges and their fee charges will not be questioned.  It’s usually the $5.05 charge that brings the whole bill into question, not the other way around.

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