Clock ticks on billable hours

To bill (per hour) or not to bill (per hour)?

That. Is the question.

In today’s shaky economy law firms are talking about (and implementing) alternative payment methods to the traditional billable hour as corporations and other clients are less able to afford the hourly fees.

The Washington Post reports that firms are using flat fees or contingency fees, which is when a firm and its client agree on a price and the firm picks up the difference if it ends up costing more.

A survey of 200 of the country’s biggest firms found 92 percent of firm leaders had used flat fees at least once and 82 percent had used contingency fees, according to The Post.

However, according to the Wall Street Journal, the billable hour is by no means dead among the richest of the rich. The Journal reports that the most expensive lawyers are charging even more per hour, with the top 25 percent of hourly billers charging 4.9 percent more compared to 2010. The average rate is $873 per hour.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, the lowest billers are only charging a 1.3 percent more than last year at an average rate of $204 an hour.

Law blog roundup

Good morning! Here are some law links for your pre-Solstice perusal:

Mimicking the Maryland model

Can the Maryland Judiciary serve as a useful model for the U.S. Supreme Court?

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., seems to think so.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he might introduce legislation to enable retired justices to sit in on cases when a current justice has recused himself or herself. Sound familiar?

In Maryland, retired judges regularly sit in by special assignment for their recused brethren and sistren without much complaint from the bench or bar. If, say, Court of Appeals Judge Sally D. Adkins must recuse herself, the high court can turn to retired Judge John C. Eldridge to take her place, thus preserving its full complement of seven judges to hear the case.

Similarly, Leahy’s yet-to-be-introduced proposal would enable the Supreme Court to field its full complement of nine justices in the dozen pending cases in which new Justice Elena Kagan has said she will not participate. Kagan said she must recuse herself because she worked on those cases in the lower courts in her last job as U.S. solicitor general.

To pinch-sit for Kagan, the Supreme Court could turn to its retirees, Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens, under the Leahy plan.

“If there  is a way for retired justices to help the court fulfill its role in our democracy, I think we should consider it,” the senator told The Washington Post.

But there is perhaps a strong argument for preserving the status quo with regard to the Supreme Court and its Maryland counterpart.

O’Connor, Souter and Stevens held lifetime appointments to the bench. Thus, they voluntarily doffed their robes by retiring and, arguably, should not be permitted to don them on a part-time basis.

In Maryland, by contrast, most judges do not retire voluntarily so much as have retirement thrust upon them by the state constitution after reaching age 70. The least the state can do after sending these judges fishing is to reel them back in on occasion, the argument goes.

What do you think of the Leahy plan?

Kagan at the bat: An inning of innuendo

I held off as long as I could, but now that larger newspapers than this one have waded in, there no longer seems to be any point in staying out of it.

I’m talking, of course, about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, the persistent rumors that she is gay, and that old photo of her the Wall Street Journal resurrected this week.

On the subject of whether she’s a lesbian and whether it matters, I’ll cite the words of Dale Carpenter in a blog post over at the Volokh Conspiracy titled “Unless the Justices Start Skinny-Dipping in the Cert Pool“:

I don’t care whether they’re straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, two-spirit, men-who-have-sex-with-men, womyn-loving-womyn, autosexual, or beyond categorization.

In fact, if I think of it at all, I prefer to think of these folks as asexual. It helps me get on with the day.

For the record, Kagan’s friends (including Princeton chum Eliot Spitzer) have revealed that she’s a practicing heterosexual from way back.

But now, on to the topic of that pernicious, innuendo-filled photo of Kagan playing softball that ran on the cover of the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Or that innocuous, totally misunderstood photo. Take your pick. What I want to know from you, readers, is this: do you think the WSJ picked this photo expressly to insinuate that Kagan is a lesbian? (After all, according to no less an authority than the New York Post, softball “is to gay women what stickball is to Brooklyn.” ) Does knowing that last year, the WSJ ran a partial picture of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger to illustrate a story about men with feminine facial features change your opinion?

One costly expense report

My expense report consists primarily of parking receipts and courthouse document copies. So I was impressed when I read a former legal secretary charged more than $46,000 on a company credit card to finance her side business – male exotic dancers.

Jarriette Richie, 41, was charged in Washington, D.C. federal court with fraud last week, according to The Washington Post. Richie worked at Saul Ewing LLP’s Washington office for three months in 2007, according to court filings. The credit card belonged to a lawyer whose firm merged with Saul Ewing, and all information related to the card was kept “in a locked room near Richie’s desk at Saul Ewing,” according to court filings.

Richie’s side businesses was Show N Tell Entertainment, which catered to female audiences and was based out of Richie’s Clinton home. The fraud charges stem from her planning an August 2007 trip to a Puerto Rican resort featuring the male performers. She used a personal credit cart to cover a $5,000 deposit, but then charged more than $21,000 on the company credit card for airline tickets and more than $25,000 for expenses at the resort, according to court filings.

Richie was released on her own recognizance following her initial court appearance Sept. 4, and her next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18.

First lawsuit filed in Metro crash

Deep in today’s WaPo story about the deadliest crash in Metro history is this nugget:

The first lawsuit against Metro as a result of the crash was filed yesterday, and more are expected. The parents of Davonne Flanagan, 15, of the District sued in federal court, charging “negligent operation” and “negligent maintenance” on the part of Metro and the train’s operator.

Imhotep Yakub and Dawn Flanagan are seeking $950,000 for Davonne’s fractured leg and his pain and suffering. They are represented by Lawrence Lapidus, of the D.C. office of Karp, Frosh, Lapidus, Wigodsky & Norwind. (The firm also has offices in Rockville and Alexandria.)

A search of the PACER system shows no other suits filed against WMATA this week in D.C. or Maryland’s federal courts.

“Judge” granted a reprieve

300px-judgeparker.pngI, like many others, religiously read newspaper comics. (Among my favorites: Pearls Before SwineF Minus, Get Fuzzy and Speed Bump.) So while I never read Judge Parker, I was pleased to learn The Washington Post has returned the strip to its print edition after an uproar among the storyline’s loyal followers.

Judge Parker, initially about a man who is jurist by day, crime fighter by night, is a serial, soap opera-style strip that first appeared in 1952. The strip was cut in the Post’s print version along with several other comics a few weeks ago but was brought back this week after the paper received more than 750 complaints about the decision – a number “far more than any other topic,” ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote in his Sunday column.

The lesson here is that while newspapers can trim and cut all they want, the comics section is a third rail that must be handled with extreme caution. Notice how The Baltimore Sun has apparently stopped printing its “You” section Mondays and Tuesdays but shifted its entire comics page elsewhere.

Incidentally, if there are local fans of The Phantom interested in starting Judge Parker-like movement to return the strip to The Sun, please let me know. My dad has been hoping for its return for years.

Don’t get rough with McGruff

mcgruff.jpgTwo recent crime stories that grabbed my attention:

A Washington, D.C. bus driver was fired last week after allegedly punching McGruff the Crime Dog in the head. Shawn Brim was driving a bus Feb. 28 when he got out of the vehicle, hit the off-duty police officer dressed as McGruff, got back in and drove away, according to a story in The Washington Post.

Brim later told police he did it “to be funny,” according to the story. What’s not funny, however, is the fact Brim chose to perform his hit-and-run in front of a group of children talking to McGruff, according to the story. McGruff, as you may know, is the trench coat-wearing dog with the gravelly voice who teaches kids to “take a bite out of crime.” Ironically, one of McGruff’s pet causes – so to speak – is how to stop and handle bullies.

Brim has been charged with misdemeanor assault.

The other story requires a back story. I was in court once when a woman came in with her son, who couldn’t have been more than a few months old. They sat in front of me, and soon the woman put a blanket over her shoulder and the boy disappeared. Women reading this probably know what happened next, but it took me a minute or two to realize she was breast-feeding.

I mention this story only to note that the woman appeared to devote both hands and  a certain amount of concentration to the task. Unlike, apparently, Genine Compton, an Ohio woman charged in late February with child endangering and unlawful child restraint for allegedly breast-feeding her baby while driving and talking on her phone, according to the Dayton Daily News.

Compton admitted she was breast-feeding and said it was because she “wouldn’t let her child go hungry,” according to the story.  An officer told the newspaper the legal concern was Compton had the child in her lap while she was driving as opposed to the breast-feeding.

Compton pleaded not guilty last week.

DANNY JACOBS, Legal Affairs Writer

Waterboarding as a motivational tool

When it comes to humor, there is a fine line between funny and tasteless. There’s also a fine line between being topical and yesterday’s news. The lines intersect at different points, creating enough angles to exhaust a protractor.

That said, I present this story from Sunday’s Washington Post about a lawsuit in Utah. It begins:

No one really disputes that Chad Hudgens was waterboarded outside a Provo office park last May 29, right before lunch, by his boss.

That’s right – as part of a teambuilding exercise, Hudgens was held down by co-workers while supervisor Joshua Christopherson “poured water from a gallon jug over [Hudgens’] nose and mouth,” according to the story.

“You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there,” Christopherson reportedly told his sales reps. “I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.”

Christopherson’s actions netted him a two-week suspension, WaPo said.

Hudgens said he’d volunteered because “the last time we did a team-building exercise outside, we did an egg toss,” according to the story.

Putting aside the obvious questions (What would happen if you forgot Christopherson’s birthday? What if you took the last Sharpie out of the supply closet?), I leave you with quotes from the firm’s general counsel and its president:

  • “I don’t know if this would even be an issue if it weren’t for Guantanamo Bay.”
  •     “How many times did the CIA even do waterboarding? Three times?”
  • “But look at the damage it did to America’s reputation. And it’s going to hurt our image.”

I still can’t decide if those sound bites create obtuse or acute angles according to my humor geometry, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t right.

Danny Jacobs, Legal Affairs Writer

Animosity between Washington Post, Virginia bloggers?

A NoVa blogger posted over the holidays about the “simmering animosity that has been developing between the Virginia blogosphere and the Washington Post.” According to Prince William Co. blogger bvbl, WaPo is pushing sources not to talk to Virginia bloggers, threatening to cut off coverage.

The Post did launch recently, but the site links to other area blogs run by bloggers not affiliated with the Post. They also have a “sponsored blogroll” on the bottom of the main home page that links to blogs that participate in the ad sales program.

Why would WaPo do that if it felt blogs were competition?

JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor