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Court Blasts K&L Gates Team's Huge Fee and 'Unnecessary Lawyering'

Is it excessive for lawyers to collect more than $800,000 in fees and costs from an estate valued at $1.2 million? Noting that would add up to 67 percent of the estate's total value, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made no bones about its opinion on the fee request, saying that it represented "unnecessary lawyering."

That does not mean that the lawyers from K&L Gates in Boston who made the request will go penniless. In an opinion issued yesterday, In the Matter of the Estate of Bartley J. King, the SJC sent the case back to the trial judge to decide a "fair and reasonable" fee award. But the court did not let go of the matter without first letting the litigants know its distaste for the fees requested.

In the present case, a total of eighteen attorneys and paralegals were representing Folan, a remarkable number especially when one takes into account the motion judge's view that the theories advanced by the contestants were not "overly complex." Even a cursory review of the billing records suggests that among all these attorneys there was duplication of effort, and a fair amount of billing for the time of two or more attorneys who were attending the same hearing. ... Moreover, at least some of the pretrial litigation activity, especially a number of Folan's pretrial motions ... and her motions for reconsideration, reasonably could be seen as unnecessary overlawyering in a case such as this, where the decedent's entire estate was worth $1.2 million.

At issue in the case was a challenge to the validity of the will of Bartley J. King, with some of his children and grandchildren raising questions of capacity and undue influence in the making of the will. After a nine-day trial, the challenge failed. Thereafter, Stephen G. Howard, the K&L Gates partner who represented the prevailing beneficiary, King's daughter Lois Folan, filed his request for $710,321.50 in attorneys' fees (50 cents?) and $95,868.47 in costs. The lower court judge awarded $510,000 in fees and $64,000 in costs, roughly half the value of the estate.

While a trial judge has wide discretion to determine the appropriate amount of a fee award, the SJC said, it was sending this case back because the judge appeared not to have evaluated the lawyers' billing records. "It is essential ... for a judge to evaluate the pertinent factors in the context of examining the attorney's description of the services actually provided, the hours spent, and the hourly rate charged," the SJC said.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 28, 2010 at 11:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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