December 05, 2008
Is that really how much it costs?

The Texas Ethics Commission is getting set to act on an ethics complaint filed in 2007 against State Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht. (A more recent complaint against Hecht is still pending.) Something about this case really caught my eye:

The controversy stems from Jackson Walker's successful defense of Hecht in 2006 in a dispute with the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The judicial commission had admonished Hecht for promoting President George W. Bush's short-lived nomination in 2005 of Harriet Miers, a longtime friend of Hecht's, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It said Hecht had violated a rule prohibiting Texas judges from publicly endorsing candidates for office. Hecht appealed and, represented by Jackson Walker partner Chip Babcock, won a dismissal of the admonition from a three-judge panel.


The justice said he received an invoice for $476,097 from the law firm in December 2006. On a separate line, he said, the invoice had a second figure, $404,682, identified as "less 15 percent discount."

"I understood that the 'discount' was not a contribution or gift to me but that it merely reflected a suggested reasonable fee for my particular case," Hecht said in his affidavit.

"Furthermore, Chip and I discussed that a portion of the legal services, perhaps around 25 percent, should be considered as having been rendered pro bono publico -- for the good of the public -- because of the ethical issues in the case that are important for all Texas judges and the First Amendment issues that are important to all judges in the United States," he added. "I understood that his firm (Jackson Walker) agreed."

Hecht said he and Babcock finally agreed on a $307,897 fee, which the justice paid in April 2007. He said he also paid additional expenses of $34,519.

Okay, I have to ask: Is it really possible that the legal work needed for this kind of case could have reasonably cost nearly a half-million bucks? I mean, I'm sure Jackson Walker charges a premium hourly rate, which is fine, but how many hours could this have taken them? I ask because I have no idea, but the possibility that it could add up to this much just boggles my mind. Any lawyers want to weigh in on this? Thanks.

Oh, and in the end, what Justice Hecht ultimately got out of all this was a $29,000 fine for accepting and failing to report an illegal political contribution from a law firm. Which he says he may appeal. I wonder how much that will cost him.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 05, 2008 to Show Business for Ugly People

That's definitely a big bill, but it's not too unusual for a legal bill from a big firm to be that large. There were probably two or three lawyers working on the file full time, charging from $400 to $700 per hour. Any day that three lawyers work on a case at those rates for the full day, the fees alone will run in the neighborhood of $15,000. So, that bill of $476,000 represents about 90 full lawyer days (3 lawyers x 30 days).

The biggest bill I've ever seen for a full day of litigation was $60,000, billed on a Saturday by 12 lawyers billing at an average rate of about $500/hour.

In the Hecht case and the second case I mention, the bill was higher than it might have been because the lawyers didn't really think their client would have to pay it. Jackson Walker is saying they didn't expect Judge Hecht to pay their bill, but prepared it in case he decided to sue the state to recover the bill. In the other case I mention, the law firm had a client who had stopped paying them. They were keeping track of their time so they could ask the other side to pay the bill. In most litigation involving this kind of money, the lawyers will keep a lid on their time to avoid submitting a bill that will cause a fee dispute.

In the great majority of cases, including these two, the bill is legitimate and reflects real hours worked. In the last few years, the nature of our economic bubble has allowed some firms to increase their rates significantly, which is the single biggest reason why the bill to Judge Hecht was $400+K instead of $200+K. There's a pretty good chance that the bursting of the bubble will depress legal rates from these levels, for most law firms.

Posted by: Jeff N. on December 5, 2008 7:53 AM

This doesn't surprise me that much. Complex litigation such as this is very expensive. Keep in mind that, for every hour the attorneys appear before the court or tribunal, there's often something like 50-100 hours of time spent outside the court in preparation, deposition, discovery, drafting pleadings and motions, and so on. I'd guess that the total fee represents somewhere between 1000-2000 hours of legal work, depending on the rates charged. As a ballpark estimate, without having seen any of the invoices, this doesn't seem to me to be completely out of the range of possibility.

Posted by: Kenneth Fair on December 5, 2008 11:59 AM

Clearly I'm going into the wrong legal field.

Posted by: Justin on December 6, 2008 8:12 PM
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