How to Teach Lawyers Not to Steal

An Ohio lawyer has been suspended for two year years suspension for submitting “false and fraudulent” time sheets. Theoretically possible for the workaholic? Sure. But three of her bills reflecting more than 24 hours of work in one day, once billing 90.3 hours of work during a 96 hour period. In another, she billed 139.5 hours of work during a 144 hour period.

Although the number of lawyers who pad their bills is probably on the downside in 2010 as more companies are looking for more ways to trim legal budget fat, lawyers who bill by the hour have been padding their bills since Emperor Claudius lifted the ban on lawyers billing more than 2,000 years ago. Little known fact: Abraham Lincoln was a notorious bill padder, sometimes charging clients five times the number of hours taken to complete the task. There was scores ofshutterstock_115685188 client complaints about Lincoln about his billing. (Before you pass this information along, consider the possibility that I’m completely making this up.)

Anyway, while most lawyers don’t, the fact that one lawyer was caught ridiculously padding her bills in not actually a Page 1 story. But I found the defense to the crime particularly interesting: it was the the law school’s failure to teach law firm management.

The first reason why this is so ridiculous is obvious. As Carolyn Elefant points out, if you can’t figure out that you are not allowed to bill more than 24 hours in a day, a law school class is not going to set you straight.

But, in my opinion, the whole idea of Law Firm Management as a course is an exercise in futility. You have make believe lawyers pretend to run a make believe law firm with make believe problems. Students just are not going to really digest the problem. It is like suggesting the guy that won your fantasy football league three years in a row would make a great general manager.


Probably more controversially, I believe the same thing hold true with professional responsibility courses. Spotting potential conflicts and ethical issues is one of the most difficult things lawyers – both plaintiffs’ lawyers and defense lawyers – have to deal with on a pretty regular basis. Conflict problems are like playing chess: you have to be able to imagine six theoretical moves ahead. Some lawyers try hard to do the right thing and still screw it up. In this case, the key is to screw it up as little as possible, tell everyone you should tell about the concern, and chart the best course that you can moving forward.

My point is that role playing in a professional responsibility class is not going to help you make these decisions years later. The problem is both doctors and lawyers are always foolishly bitter about all of the things they didn’t learn in medical school and law school. But there are only so many practical things you can learn in this life without actually going out there and doing them. Here is an even better real life example that will resonate with most people: you never could have trained me to be a parent. I could have read a 1,000 books on the topic and I never could have applied much of it in a meaningful way until I actually walked a mile in the shoes of a parent.

Posted in:
Updated:
  • Ron,
    Thanks for linking to my post. I completely agree with your views on teaching practice management – you just don’t know what is going to work until you’re in that situation.
    In addition, there is an enormous variance between different types of practices. In my practice, I handle a mix of appeals, regulatory filings and have perhaps just 1-2 litigated cases every year. Most of my clients come from referral sources, and as a result, I very rarely need to (and often don’t) take a retainer fee. Contrast my practice with your personal injury practice, or even your PI practice with one of a far smaller scale. The tools and procedures needed for each (not to mention state specific rules on trust accounting, flat fee refundability, etc…) are completely different as well.

  • This is an interesting article. Maybe “Honest Abe” wasn’t so honest after all…

Contact Information