Attorney Fee Awards and Reasonable Hourly Rates for Lawyers
Attorney fee awards and reasonable hourly rates for lawyers are important to us here at vaquitamlaw.com because, as regular readers know, the federal False Claims Act and the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act both contain mandatory fee-shifting provisions. As regular readers also know, courts use the loadstar approach — which consists of a reasonable hourly rate multiplied by a reasonable number of hours worked — in determining whether a fee is reasonable. It is easy to describe the loadstar formula — but it is apparently much tougher to actually prove a reasonable rate and then prove a reasonable number of hours.
Today’s post will focus on reasonable hourly rates charged by lawyers and in particular on some of the claims made recently in various places about standard rates for attorney’s fees.
Reasonable Hourly Rates for Lawyers
The rates charged by lawyers in the community where the court sits is normally the appropriate starting point for selecting the hourly rate. So I follow with interest articles like this one in the Wall Street Journal announcing that some lawyers in NYC are charging $1,500 per hour. And I still remember the hubbub when former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti began billing at $1,000 per hour more than 11 years ago, which even made the Washington Post.
As with many things in the world of law, a little more digging will be beneficial.
First, WSJ relied on what firms themselves said about their hourly rates, which means there is a certain amount of puffery involved. I can hear it now “You know, my normal hourly rate is $1,500 per hour, but just for *you* dear client, I will charge you *half* of that…please don’t tell my other clients.” The client then walks away feeling like he or she had gotten a real bargain…for $750 per hour.
Second, these are the rates charged by senior partners which means, by definition, that their work on cases will be limited. Civiletti could charge $1,000 per hour because most of his work consists of using his contacts, knowledge, and so forth…as a former Attorney General, he is not going to be rolling up his sleeves and going through boxes of documents…he is going to devise a strategy for a case and supervise the lower-priced partners and associates of Venable.
Third, WSJ relied on public information from bankruptcy petitions, but lawyers who think it even remotely possible that a client could go bankrupt will often list their highest rates because they know if they become a creditor in bankruptcy, they are going to get a fraction of that.
One thing is certain — statutory fee-shifting provisions are definitely not punitive in nature…so I suspect we will all have to wait for a lawyer to be awarded $1,500 per hour by a court.