Billing 15 minutes for less: Panel affirms firm?s necessity of fees

I remember my days as a young divorce practitioner billing in 0.1 time increments and burning the midnight oil to meet deadlines and tackle emergencies. Apparently, billing increments have shifted upward to no less than 15-minute increments, but the long hours have not changed.

Nor has some clients? refusal to pay at the end of the day. In re Marriage of Andres, 2021 IL App (2d) 191146, is a must-read case for practitioners seeking fees against their own client under Sec. 508 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act.

In Andres, the law firm of Mirabella, Kincaid, Frederick & Mirabella (MKFM) represented Nick Andres in post-judgment maintenance and child support proceedings for about a year-and-a-half. The written engagement agreement provided a minimum billing provision that allowed all telephone calls, voicemails, emails, correspondences and other activities to be billed in increments of one-quarter hour’s time. It also provided that all court appearances and the preparation of any court document would be billed at a minimum of one hour’s time. In the event these times went more than one hour, they would be billed in one-quarter increments. The engagement agreement also provided for periodic increases in billing rates.

As is typical of clients, Andres received monthly bills from MKFM and did not object to the amount of time billed or ask about the charges. He later expressed dissatisfaction with the firm’s representation and refused to pay the bill. This prompted MKFM to file a fee petition under Sec. 508. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court awarded nearly $96,000 in fees.

Of significance, the court approved the engagement agreement and found the billing rates, annual rate increases, and 15-minute minimum billing increments were reasonable and agreed to by Andres. Aside from an excess of 30 hours billed for trial and deposition preparation, the court approved the fees requested by MKFM. The 2nd District Appellate Court affirmed.

The Appellate Court held that 15-minute minimum billing increments are not inherently unreasonable nor render a contract presumptively unreasonable. Rather, it depends on the application of facts. The panel considered all the usual factors in determining the reasonableness of MKFM’s fees, including the number of hours the attorney spent, the skill and standing of the attorneys, the difficulty of the issues, the amount and importance of the subject matter in the field of family law, the degree of responsibility involved in the management of the case, the usual and customary charge in the community and the benefits to the client.

The court observed that the larger the minimum billing increment, the greater likelihood overbilling may occur. However, in Andres the billing increments were reasonable. The panel noted: An attorney has a fair amount of discretion regarding how they bill their clients and what they bill for. Evidence that an attorney exercised restraint and discretion in his or her billing speaks to the reasonableness of the fees, but it is not necessarily required.? Andres, ?82. Nonetheless, in Andres, the attorney’s practice of not billing for certain smaller items (like responding to emails) spoke to the reasonableness of the fees and “mitigated any overbilling that occurred.? Id.

The court also recognized the harsh reality that attorneys often put in more than eight-hour workdays. Thus, it was not inherently unreasonable to bill more than eight hours in a day.

In affirming the decision, the Appellate Court rightfully gave deference to the trial court who was in the best position to decide the reasonableness and necessity of the fees. Andres is not a wholesale approval of minimum billing increments in all cases, but lends support for the notion that not every minute of each day needs to be itemized precisely, so long as the fees charged are reasonable.

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