Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Re Matter of Smith (9th Cir. - Nov. 10, 2009)

For all those civil lawyers out there (and even you criminal folks), let me ask you this: How many hours do you think it would take you -- total -- to defend a complex multi-count fraud, money-laundering and conspiracy felony trial in federal court? Five hundred? A thousand? More?

Plus, ask yourself this: If a client came in and asked you to offer them a flat fee, what would you quote them? Assume, of course, that you had the expertise to do the case. Here's one more fact that might be relevant: The trial alone is going to take a full week.

I ask all this because this morning, Judge Tallman -- acting in his capacity as the Chief Judge's delegate in the Northern Administrative Unit for indigent defendant CJA fee issues -- reminds everyone what the actual federal compensation regime is. You get a maximum of $8600. At the princely rate of $110/hour.

Which makes me think about asking my students: "Do you really want to be an appointed private criminal defense attorney?" Or simply to remind everyone of the vast, vast disparity between compensation in the private versus public sector -- or civil versus criminal sector, or appointed versus retained, etc.

I'm not complaining about what Judge Tallman actually does here. The court's allowed to go over the $8600 cap if the case is especially "complex", and that's precisely what the court did here. Mind you, the attorney still makes only $110/hour. But you're at least allowed to spend more hours (or, more accurately, get paid for them) if, in retrospect, the court believes that the matter was complicated.

But Spokane attorney Gerald Smith still gets around half of his requested fees cut. He says in an interim fee request that he wants another $47,000, and he only gets approved for $27,000. At, again, $110/hour. So Smith complains. But Judge Tallman notes that Judge Quackenbush, who is the one to administered the haircut, was both at the trial and is extremely experienced in the assessment of how much work a criminal trial case. Plus, Smith didn't exactly help himself by giving a 10-minute opening statement and not putting on any witnesses. Even if you really did spend an extra 700 hours on the case -- which no one's doubting -- sometimes it's hard to pump your fees up even extra-beyond the statutory maximum when you've got very little to show for it. Either at trial or in the results (since your client was convicted on all counts).

But the larger point is that no one's getting rich on $110/hour and $8600 felony caps. Plus don't forget you've got to pay your overhead with that as well. Plus those $100,000+ in student loans.

Sort of makes you want to get an MBA or go into investment banking, huh?