Ethics and Time Based Billing: Lawyer Billed Clients For Time Spent Watching Reality Crime Shows

One of the most important aspects of being an attorney is proper billing. Lawyers who use hourly billing must provide an accurate accounting of legitimate time that they work on a case. Lawyers should also communicate with clients when it appears that fees and costs may exceed initial expectations. Failure to employ best practices when billing clients can lead an attorney into hot water.

Tennessee lawyer Yarboro Sallee found herself in this hot water. Sallee was hired to represent the parents of a deceased wife and mother in a wrongful death lawsuit against their former son-in-law, who they blamed for her death. Sallee initially quoted the family a figure of $100,000 at $250 per hour. The family eventually fired Sallee after constant haggling with her over increasing fees and costs, which exceeded her initial quote.

After three months of work which included not much more than the drafting of a complaint, Sallee delivered an itemized bill for $140,000. She filed suit to collect her fees from her former clients, who filed an ethics complaint against Sallee. Sallee’s itemized billing contained charges to the clients for hours of watching reality crime shows such as The First 48, which Sallee justified as relevant research. Sallee also billed the clients the full rate for time spent waiting for records and 1½ times her normal rate for working after 5 pm. Sallee never discussed these charges with the clients prior to Sallee’s termination; she also refused to return some of the case files upon the clients’ request.

The Tennessee Supreme Court found that Sallee’s actions were in violation of the state’s ethics rules as she was unable to demonstrate any substantial work to support her fees. The court also found that she violated a duty to communicate with the clients in respect to increasing fees. Sallee also violated her duty to the clients post representation by unfairly withholding pertinent records needed for her former client’s litigation. The court upheld the decision of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility’s hearing panel and affirmed Sallee’s suspension from the practice of law for one year.

Thus, the lesson in a nut shell is be honest and fair when billing clients, communicate any expected increases in billing, and watching The First 48 does not amount to legal research.

To read the opinion, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *