The Lawyer Fee Trial

As a young lawyer I was involved in a trial suing for the collection of attorney fees.  I was with a small but very good law firm at the time.  I was to be the second chair in the case.  There are different kinds of second chairs.  A lot depends on the size of the firm involved.   Some are really not much more than paper shufflers and document and exhibit carriers.  At the small firm where I was working everyone was expected to carry their own weight.  I was definitely not lead counsel in the trial but I was fully engaged and an active participant.  We weren’t big enough to have the luxury of someone to simply carry briefcases.

The case concerned a suit brought by two attorneys who were partners for the collection of their fees for rendering services to a lady during a divorce proceeding.  Seems pretty straightforward when you say it like that but there were a few complicating factors that made the case much more interesting.   First of all these guys, Bill and Woody did not represent the lady in the courtroom and never attended any meetings with her husband’s counsel.  They never negotiated any proposed settlment, wrote any letters to oppposing counsel had any phone calls with him.  They never filed any pleadings in the case and were not counsel of record.  How could that be you ask? 

Well, the lady had already hired a lawyer to represent her in the divorce proceeding.  Jim was a very good attorney and had been the number one assistant in the local district attorney’s office for years before he began his own private practice.  This lady went to him.  She was married to a local entrepreneur who had at that time the exclusive cab service for the city.  He had done very well with that operation and a few other businesses he owned.  We are a community property state and they had been married since their youth and she was entitled to a substantial sum in all likelihood.  We did not have a “no fault” divorce system in those days so the fights could be quite vigorous and rough on occasion.  The judge was not compelled to divide the assets 50/50 but could adjust based on fault or wrongdoing by either party or both.   In was in anticipation of a real fight that the lady chose Jim.  He was a court room fighter. 

After a few weeks however she became nervous that maybe Jim was not being aggressive enough in the fight.   That is when she decided to hire Bill and Woody to be shadow lawyers if you will.  She wanted them  to give a second opinion on everything that was going on in the case.  But she and our clients kept the attorney client relationship secret from Jim.  She would visit Jim and talk about whatever in her case or have a court hearing of one kind or another and then  she would run to our clients and go over everything with them and get their advice or opinion on the direction of the case.  The arrangement was not unethical but clearly unorthodox to say the least.  Our clients did prepare memos and such for her review and did spend a great deal of time with her in meetings.  She would bring to them all the pleadings that were filed by her husband or Jim in the case for their review.  Our clients got a $15,000.00 retainer up front and then worked on this matter for anther couple of years.  When all was said and done they billed the lady for an additional $38,000.00 based on their time in the matter.  She refused to pay and said it was not owed and their advice was not worth it.   That is when they came to us and we filed suit. 

She hired Jim to defend her in the suit by our clients. Now she was totally confident in his ability to represent her.  She was outraged that our guys said she owed even more money.  Needless to say attorneys are not the most beloved of folks in society.   Indeed they are reviled by many and to sue for attorneys fees is never an easy case to win under the best of circumstances.  Here we had clients who didn’t really “do” anything.   Believe me the other side made a big deal of that.  Jim was particularly grilling in his cross examination and repeatedly brought up the fact that everything they did was behind his back and that they never produced anything that had a direct effect on the outcome of the divorce trial.  The case was all the buzz in the local bar as we went to it for several days.  It was a jury trial.  We were concerned that regardless of the law that the jury would not award any fees simply because they didn’t like our clients or lawyer generally.  Woody was a real social bee and had that used car salesman type of personality.  Always smiling and glad handing.  He was supposedly the one that was expert in community property law and that was his contribution; Bill was the trial lawyer and he was giving advice on how to handle the actual trial if one occurred.  The divorce eventually had settled by agreement between the lady and her husband without the need for any trial. So ultimately whatever advice Bill gave was about a trial that never was.  Bill was also very irascable.  Loud.  The stereotypical bully lawyer.  He was not a scholarly type at all but some clients love those loud and rambunctous lawyers thinking that they are fighting so hard for them. 

The jury came back and awarded $15,000.00 as reasonable fees for our clients services plus about $7000.00 for our fees.  That lady went ballistic when the verdict was read by the court.  She cussed out my boss right there in the court room for representing such sleazebags in her opinion.  My boss was a very smooth operator and an excellent trial lawyer.  He only responded he was sorry she was upset.  Bill was very angry and fussed that we had not done a good enough job or they would have gotten all their money.  Woody was pleased.  Frankly, it was a great piece of legal work and especially trial work on our part to win anything.  Our clients did do work and were entitled to something but my boss and I were worried the jury would find for them but award only a pittance because of the underhanded way they handled everything and since they didn’t really produce anything discernible. 

I learned a lot from my boss during that trial about how you handle litigation, juries and difficult clients.  I also learned that you better enjoy those victories when they come because they are never easy.    The lessons in human nature gleaned from the lady, Jim, Woody and Bill and my boss and that jury were worth the cost of a semester’s tuition in college. 

People always talk about the trial of the decade or century.  But the trial of our nation’s history is still, bar none, the trial against Aaron Burr for treason in the US Senate.  Talk about drama, that has to be the top of the heap.  Can you just image today if a sitting VP was tried for treason and the Chief Justice presided at his trial in the Senate.  CNN and the other news outlets would go bonkers.


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Filed under Culture, history, law

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