National Law Journal has a new article called Pro Bono Case Triggers a Fee Fight on the controversy surrounding the attempt of a Seattle BigLaw firm (Davis Wright Tremaine) seeking to recover its attorney fees under a fee-shifting statute even though it took the case pro bono. The case was the closely watched “Seattle Schools” case decided by SCOTUS last year. (If you want some background from the view of the losing party, the school district’s press release from the day of the decision is available as a PDF download.)
In a very detailed post entitled The Pro Bono Road to Riches! last October, I discussed the issue in the context of a California case, in which the dictum of the Court of Appeal seemed to indicate a predisposition to awarding fees in pro bono cases. In that case, the trial court trimmed the fee request by 50% right off the top because it deemed the engagement “mildly pro bono,” and ultimately awarded less than one third of the amount requested. The Court of Appeal’s dictum leaves little doubt that the firm left plenty of money on the table by not cross-appealing to contest the amount awarded. (My earlier post includes several links to information about the Seattle Schools case, by the way.)
My post caught the attention of the Overlawyered blog, which sent me a ton of traffic when they linked my post. In fact, the traffic from Overlawyered was responsible for my highest traffic ever for a single day, and accounts for the anomalous bump in traffic during October that you see in the chart to the right. Clearly, this is a hot issue. So I also followed it up with an article in our local bar publication, CITATIONS.
I continue to believe that a large part of the controversy in the Seattle Schools case is driven by the nature of the party from whom fees are sought: a school district. Obviously, many members of the public are going to think that the district has better uses for the money. (Of course, there were probably a lot of people who said the same thing about the money spent by the district in fighting the case.) I wonder, though, if the people who are outraged at the firm seeking fees from the school district would have been just as angry with the firm in the case I profiled, which successfully represented more than 30 tenants seeking damages on various causes of action arising from the landlord’s refusal to let the tenants return to their units after they were evacuated from an unsafe building by the city. That firm, too, was a BigLaw heavy-hitter, but I’m sure the landlord of an unsafe building is going to get far less sympathy from the public than a school district.
One commentator in the NLJ article raises a point I made to a reporter who called me about my post: Is it right for well-heeled firms who often burnish their images by conspicuously accepting pro bono engagements to then seek fees for those engagements? This is an especially valid question if the firm announces the engagement with some fanfare but keeps the fee request rather quiet. It makes one wonder whether anyone honored for their pro bono work has actually been collecting fees for part of it.
Actually, that wouldn’t bother me, as long as fees were disclosed. A semi-pro bono case — in which an attorney agrees to an engagement for which he is paid only if he can recover fees under a contractual or statutory provision — is really just another form of contingency fee case, with all of the same risks.