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Beating Billing Blunders: Former Bar President's Cautionary Tale

What's your hourly rate? $300? $600? Glenn C. Lewis probably had you beat. According to The Washington Post, Lewis once claimed in an interview to be the most expensive attorney in the area, at $850 an hour for his service as a family law attorney specializing in divorce, custody, and other related matters.

But he's billed his last hour, it seems. On Friday, Lewis, the former president of the Virginia Bar Association, was disbarred for dishonesty, mismanaging client funds, and filing to fulfill his legal obligations. And though his problems went far beyond the billing blunders we discussed yesterday, a disputed $500,000 bill served as the catalyst for his downfall.

Lawyers Suing Lawyers

The beginning of the end came when Lewis billed a client, who was also an attorney, for half a million dollars in unpaid legal fees, in addition to the $378,000 already paid in the divorce case, which settled pre-trial. While attorneys who handle high-stakes divorces often command larger hourly rates, by any measure, a $627,000 divorce tab, plus $253,000 in interest, is steep, maybe excessive.

Lewis stood by his accounting, even after experts (including another former state bar president) agreed to testify that his billing was excessive and his work subpar. The client ended up counter-suing for malpractice. The case settled after Lewis agreed to pay more than $102,000 to his former client, including $25,000 in sanctions for missing a deposition, reports the Post.

However, before the settlement, and during discovery, an examination of Lewis’ billing records for all cases found days where he billed 39, 31, 40 and even 70 hours in a single day. Lewis’ excuse? Block billing. (Sidebar: Yesterday’s tip #3 was never block bill. This is why.) Over a sixteen month period in 2003 and 2004, he billed 7.4 hours per day, 365 days per year. He also hosted a local television show and handled his bar duties.

It Got Worse

Shortly after the disputed tab was settled, other bar complaints began to roll in. Two former clients alleged that Lewis took tens of thousands of dollars in retainers and they received little or nothing in return, reports the Post. Both clients ended up suing (and winning via default judgment) over the paid and unearned retainers. Meanwhile, Lewis had shuttered his offices, filed for bankruptcy, and had his house foreclosed upon.

The state bar’s disciplinary board found twenty rule violations between the two unearned retainer cases, including provisions dealing with reasonable fees (duh), communications with clients, diligence, safekeeping of funds, cooperation with bar investigators, wrongful acts, and dishonesty or fraud.

It seems apparent that there was more to Lewis’ downfall than a few billing disputes with clients. Still, short of no-showing to court (he did that to), there are few things more likely to trigger a client’s wrath, and bar disciplinary proceedings, than questionable billing tactics.

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