Huh? Lawyer’s Overbilling Blamed on Law School’s Failure To Teach Practice Management

Law schools today get a bad rap, often deservedly so. From outrageous tuition to to ineffectual, elitist law professors to fraudulent post-graduation employment statistics to failure to teach practical skills, law schools have become the scapegoats for everything wrong with the legal profession.

Including theft over-billing. Yes, you read that right.  Lawyer coach Rjon Robins blames law school for Ohio lawyer Kristin Stahlbush’s two-year suspension (one year stayed) for submitting “false and fraudulent” time records claiming 3451 hours of court appointed work for 2006.  Sadly, Stalbush’s conduct wasn’t a one-time occurrence either.  In addition to submitting three bills reflecting more than 24 hours of work in one day, one of Stahlbush’s bills showed 90.3 hours of work during a 96 hour period, while another showed 139.5 hours of work during a 144 hour period. All told, Stalhbush would have had to work an impossible schedule of 10 hours a day, 365 days a year to account for the time billed to the court in 2006.

Notwithstanding that the Ohio Supreme Court found that Stahlbush gave “patently false testimony” about having worked all of the hours billed, and that “poor record keeping alone cannot explain over-billing of such magnitude” [Opinion at 7], Robins lashes out at the “self-righteous” commenters who criticize Stahbush’s ethical transgressions, while giving her a pass.   Instead, Robins portrays Stahlbush as a casualty of a legal education system that fails to prepare lawyers for real world practice:

The sad fact of the matter is that law schools do a generally poor job of preparing graduates to deal with the practical realities of managing the business-side of a law firm. And there are very few CLE programs offered which focus on the practical realities of managing a law firm in the real world.

That is a world which exists with a hundred different demands, distractions & demands that a solo lawyer or owner of a small law firm function as both an effective advocate, counselor & adviser AND ALSO an effective owner, operator and manager of their business too….

Perhaps if Ms. Stahlbush had been properly trained to start, effectively manage and even profitably market her law firm this situation could have been avoided.

What?  Is Robins claiming that if law school had taught Stahlbush to manage her timekeeping properly, she wouldn’t have lost track of her hours and submitted invoices totaling 3451 hours for court appointed work? Or that if Stahlbush had taken a practice management course in law school and learned to run a profitable practice, she wouldn’t have had to bilk the court system to make up the shortfall?

Either way, Robins is dangerously wrong. If a lawyer doesn’t realize that a bill totaling more than 24 hours for a for a day’s work is flat wrong, frankly, she’s beyond help — and all of the practice management training in the world isn’t going to make a difference.  Moreover, running a profitable practice doesn’t guarantee that lawyers won’t steal – if it did, we wouldn’t see cases like this one involving a biglaw partner and his marketing consultant wife charged fraud for submitting $400,000 in false bills to the San Francisco school district and insurers for the treatment of their autistic son.

In today’s economy, there are hundreds of lawyers who are struggling to make ends meet. Presumably, like Stahlbush, they too endured a law school education devoid of practice management, yet they’re not concocting fraudulent bills or stealing from clients and the court kitty.   Moreover, to excuse Stahlbush is a slap in the face to those lawyers who are having financial difficulty and juggle the myriad of demands required in running a law practice, but who would never dream of compromising their ethical obligations and personal integrity.  That’s called character, and you know what?  They don’t teach that in law school either.

[Update 8/30/10 7 am]: In re-reading the comments on the original story, I saw that along with law school, the billable hour is also identified as another rationale for Stahlbush’s conduct. For example, Robins commented that “There is no such thing as “over-compensation when you break the habit of the billable hour and embrace flat-fee, value-based-billing,” while others suggested that the billable hour only encourages lawyers to pad their time. Listen, I’m no fan of the billable hour either, but I’m not even sure why it’s an issue here. For starters, the billable hour was the court’s requirement, not necessarily Stahlbush’s preference. If a client demands time-keeping in a certain way, then we lawyers can either do what they ask, or find another client. If Stahlbush didn’t want to go through the trouble of keeping accurate time records, she should have found clients on her own instead of getting them through the court system.

Moreover, just like lack of training doesn’t force lawyers to act dishonestly, neither does flat fee billing. If anything, flat fee billing demands a higher level of trust, because there’s less accountability: at the end of the day, the client takes the lawyer’s word that the proposed fee is fair for the value promised. That situation makes it even easier for lawyers to simply pull a number out of a hat. As I’ve written before, under any fee system, so long as lawyers are driven by a desire to maximize revenue, without regard to the client’s best interest, then clients will suffer:

Until lawyers start realizing that we owe special duties to our clients because of our fiduciary relationship, not to mention our ethical responsibility, there isn’t a billing practice in the world that will produce reasonable and fair fees – and let us sleep guilt free at night.

Didn’t need to go to law school or work with a law coach to comprehend that concept either.