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In the Matter of Fordham


    Citation. In re Fordham, 423 Mass. 481, 668 N.E.2d 816, 1996 Mass. LEXIS 203 (Mass. Aug. 9, 1996)

    Brief Fact Summary. Respondent is appealing a public reprimand imposed regarding allegedly excessive billing in his work on a DUI case that he had warned the client was outside of his practice area.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Determining reasonableness of an attorney’s hourly fees.

    Facts. Respondent, experienced trial attorney Laurence Fordham, was retained by Timothy Clark, a defendant charged with a number of motor vehicle offenses including driving under the influence of alcohol. Respondent warned Clark that he had never tried a case in this area-or represented a client in District Court–and that he might have to incur more costs in preparation for trial than another attorney already well-versed in these matters. Clark agreed to these conditions, and Respondent was able to clear him of the DUI charges through a trial strategy that all parties agreed was very effective. Respondent’s bill for this matter, however, totaled over $50,000 for an estimated 227 hours of preparation, and Clark challenged this fee as “clearly excessive.” The Board of Bar Overseers determined that it was not, and the bar counsel now challenges that ruling.

    Issue. Was Respondent’s fee in this matter “clearly excessive”?

    Held. Yes. Although it was reasonable of Respondent in this case to take the case even if he was not experienced in the relevant law, it was not reasonable of him to expect the client to pay for his “education” in this field of law and then charge him nearly ten times more than an experienced attorney would have charged. Although the client consented to the terms presented by Respondent, Respondent never gave him a proper estimate of how much the case might cost and he had no reason to believe that the total bill would be anything approaching $50,000-especially since the average case in this area bills about 30 hours.

    Discussion. Although an attorney may bill a client for “learning time,” an attorney should not expect his client to pay for his education in fields of law to an extent that this becomes an unreasonable burden. A lawyer should generally not accept employment regarding any area of the law in which he is not properly qualified.


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