Are contract lawyers an expense or a fee item? This issue has been litigated before and, according to my reading, has been resolved in favor of the law firm. The law firm is entitled to engage contract or temporary lawyers for one price and charge the client a higher price. One rationale for this is that the firm can engage lawyers on a short term basis, without a long term commitment, to provide the work for the client that is necessary. When that job or assignment is completed, the law firm can sever the tie with the contract lawyer and retain a lower overhead. Everyone benefits: the lawyer who otherwise would not have been employed; the law firm that can take on additional work and its resulting benefits; and the client whose goals can be met more efficiently and timely.
The issue usually arises from a complaint by an insurance carrier who is responsible for payment of legal fees under a policy of insurance or a creditors’ committee that wants a larger share of available funds and finds the law firm(s) an easy target. Currently, the Citigroup class action legal fees are being challenged by a group called the Center for Class Action Fairness.
The allegations in this case go beyond the assertion that a law firm cannot charge more than it pays for legal talent. If this were the only issue, the challengers would have no standing; this issue has been resolved and it would be a major reversal of thought for the court to rule otherwise. But, the real issues are whether the engagement agreement mentioned anything about contract lawyers and, if so, what were the terms; what risk did the law firm accept when its fee was based on a contingency (was this a novel area of law or one in which plaintiffs had not been successful before); what was the expertise needed in the matter for which contract lawyers were engaged, and what was the expertise actually engaged; and were the fees charged “reasonable” under all the circumstances.
In this case, the total fees amount to less than 17% of the class action settlement. The court will have to decide whether this was a reasonable fee overall and/or whether each component of the fee requested reasonable. The added risk for any law firm taking on this type of case is that its fee is always reviewed on Monday morning … the Monday morning quarterback always has a better perspective than does the game-day quarterback. While the large company client can protect itself by hiring the contract lawyers directly, though they could then hardly expect the law firm to oversee that portion of the work product. The client can further protect itself by objecting to paying the legal fee and litigating the fee. But, how does a law firm protect itself against the client (usually someone else speaking in the shoes of the client) so as to avoid an after-the-fact conflict?