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In the Matter of [Attorney] (SJC 12850) the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found the attorney not only charged excessive fees to multiple clients but did so intentionally over a matter of months. In 2015, as an equity partner, the attorney did not bill her time contemporaneously. Instead, she tasked her assistant with creating a weekly timesheet capturing her time using only handwritten notes, calendar entries, emails, correspondence, and pleadings. Her assistant did not generally have firsthand knowledge of the time the attorney spent on specific tasks, and the notes she left did not often indicate how much time was spent on each task. In reviewing these timesheets, the attorney did not adjust for any time her assistant might have missed. When her pre-bills arrived, however, she added approximately 450 total hours, including 100 to herself, 110 to a specific senior associate, and 240 to five other associates at the firm. This resulted in the firm billing almost $216,000 more to her clients than the pre-bills indicated.
The attorney claimed the bills represented work she did, even when she credited the work to other attorneys. She excused these misrepresentations by claiming creating new time entries of her own would have been administratively burdensome. Also, she was benefiting her clients, as they received the benefit of her work at the associates’ price tag. The Board of Bar Overseers did not accept her claims. The Board of Bar Overseers determined she intentionally inflated her own hours by misrepresenting her appearance at several depositions and calculating she would have had to work 11 hours each work day, every day of the year to meet the number of hours she recorded on her bills. They suspended her license to practice law for two years.
The attorney appealed the suspension to a Single Justice of the SJC. In support of her appeal, she submitted affidavits from clients stating how happy they were with her work and did not believe she over charged them for work performed. Initially, the Single Justice concluded that a two-year suspension would be too harsh a punishment, as the attorney’s clients were satisfied with her work.
On appeal, however, the Supreme Judicial Court determined the recommended 2-year suspension was an appropriate punishment. The attorney’s conduct was not mitigated by her clients’ satisfaction, the quality of her work, or the amount of stress she might have been under at the time. The Supreme Judicial Court wrote in its decision, “It is not the sheer number of unworked hours that establishes a misconduct, but rather, the dishonesty manifested by billing for all them”. Additionally, her ample experience in the practice of law, her evasiveness and lack of candor during testimony, and her failure to acknowledge the seriousness of her conduct necessitated a harsher punishment to protect the public and deter other attorneys from misconduct in the future. The Supreme Judicial Court found the evidence unequivocally established that the attorney had intentionally billed for services that were not rendered violating Mass. R. Prof. C. 8.4 (c), 8.4 (h) and 1.5 9a).
In rendering a two- year suspension the Supreme Judicial court found the attorney’s misconduct was more serious than that where an attorney charged an excessive fee. It also found that a client’s satisfaction with an attorney’s work is no reason to justify excuse the dishonesty involved in billing for work that was not performed.
For more information, please contact Nancy Reimer at [email protected].