Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak and Stewart, like many firms, used new hires in a case it was working on for Maricopa County in Arizona. Those employees had taken the bar exam but hadn't yet gotten results so they weren't technically associates.
What to call new hires between the bar exam and posting of results can be tricky. How to bill their services to clients can be even harder. But it's the job of an attorney to figure out a solution
Maricopa noticed that they were wrongly billed for work done by a new hire who had not yet passed the bar but was billed as an associate. They complained and the issue was settled with a reimbursement.
Then Maricopa noticed another new hire billed as an associate and things got heated.
Now they've filed a class action lawsuit claiming 299 billing errors including 227 that are a result of billing attorneys at a higher experience level.
Billing is a delicate part of the attorney-client relationship and fair billing is an important tenet of legal ethics. Any mistakes in a client's bill should be quickly fixed and it's good practice to double check for other errors.
If there's any question about how billing works, it can be helpful to define what paralegal, associate, partner, and senior partner mean in terms of experience. That way clients know what they're getting for the higher hourly rate.
Ogletree Deakins did specify the experience for each kind of legal professional but then allegedly billed at higher rates despite that agreement, according to the ABA Journal. Whether or not that was intentional, to a client it probably looks like fraud.
Honesty in billing is not just a part of professional responsibility, it's also good business practice. Client trust is the basis of a good relationship and a good client relationship often means repeat business.
If Ogletree Deakins had been clear about their billing from the start and stuck to their agreement they might have avoided this mess. Not only is Maricopa suing for damages, they're also seeking to debar the firm from contracting work with the county for the next three years.