FAMILY LAW IN THE FAST LANE
October 29, 2010 § Leave a comment
This article is copied from the Washington Post online edition. After you read it, you may have an unsettling sense of unreality. Lawyers charging $850 an hour for a divorce? Billing for more than 7 hours a day, 365 days a year? Billing for as many as 71 hours in a day? $624,000 in fees for a divorce trial? I am not making this up.
High-priced lawyer sues former client, then agrees to pay him $102,000
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 6:29 PM
Glenn C. Lewis is an acknowledged titan of the D.C. area divorce bar, a former president of the Virginia Bar Association who boasts that he is the most expensive lawyer in the region: $850 an hour. He has an impressive office in the District and an array of high-profile clients.
So it fascinated the Fairfax County courthouse when Lewis sued one of his former clients for an additional $500,000 in fees and interest, although he’d already been paid $378,000.
The fascinating part was that the client, a lawyer himself, fired back. He hired another former state bar president, Bernard J. DiMuro, who dug through Lewis’s billing records and hired two more divorce bar giants – including another former state bar president – as his experts. The experts said Lewis had done a poor job and didn’t deserve nearly $900,000 for his work.
In Fairfax Circuit Court on Friday, Lewis capitulated. He agreed to pay his former client more than $102,000, including $25,000 in sanctions imposed on Lewis’s lawyers for defying pretrial orders. Lewis even failed to show up for his own deposition.
Lewis, who for years hosted his own cable access television show, and who was given a lifetime achievement award from the Virginia State Bar’s family law section, remains unrepentant. His final bill for the divorce of Steve Firestone was $627,000, and he sought another $253,000 in interest for the case, which ended in 2004 without a trial less than a year from the time it was filed.
“He owed us more than that,” Lewis said in an interview last week. “We earned more than that. I feel as strongly today as I did the day we filed [suit], that Mr. Firestone owed every penny of it.”
Firestone said, “I thought that what I paid was egregiously high,” and he stopped paying shortly before his divorce was finalized. Then he received the lawsuit seeking another $500,000 five years later.
“I was shocked,” Firestone said. “If he won, we were going to be out on the street.”
Firestone hired DiMuro, who doesn’t do divorce law. But DiMuro obtained Lewis’s billing records and the records of the divorce, which he then handed over to Joseph Condo and Robert Shoun, two longtime family law practitioners.
Their conclusion: Not only were Lewis’s bills “flagrantly disproportionate to the value of the dispute,” DiMuro said, but Lewis’s settlement was a lousy deal. Firestone, through DiMuro, pursued Lewis for legal malpractice.
Firestone’s ex-wife had used Fairfax attorney David L. Duff for the divorce. Duff’s total bill: $73,000.
DiMuro noted that three lawyers from Lewis’s firm worked on Firestone’s case, and two lawyers often appeared at meetings or depositions that would normally be handled by one lawyer. In 2003, Lewis was only billing $575 an hour, while two young associates billed at rates closer to $250 an hour.
Lewis said Firestone was a difficult client, presenting numerous problems, and that comparing one side’s legal bills with the other’s is unfair. Firestone had tax problems, problems with his law practice, bookkeeping difficulties, suffered from depression and was intent on revenge against his wife, Lewis said.
But DiMuro said, “This was a garden-variety divorce with a modest estate for this area. No child custody issues. Their incomes were modest.” Besides their house in Fairfax County, the Firestones owned a small office condo and a few other assets. Firestone also had a $1.1 million inheritance from his parents, DiMuro said, which Lewis successfully kept separate from the marital estate.
Lewis said that’s a simplistic analysis. “This case presented so many more issues that were bigger than getting unmarried,” he said. “I had the high maintenance client.” He said Firestone signed a contract acknowledging that multiple lawyers might work on his case and that he had 30 days to challenge a bill, which he never did.
One of Firestone’s quirks was his heated denial that his wife had cancer, Lewis claimed. Lewis said he never really pursued the issue, and the case ended in July 2004. But several years later, in a casual conversation with Duff, he learned that Beverly Firestone had died of cancer not long after the divorce.
“My head exploded,” Lewis said. “I was sickened by that. I was horrified to think the case accelerated that. Nothing is more stressful than a divorce case. Stress kills.”
So, he sued Steve Firestone in October 2009.
Firestone said he never told Lewis his wife didn’t have cancer. “I told him I wondered if it was a ploy to increase my alimony exposure,” Firestone said.
In pretrial discovery, DiMuro obtained billing records for all of Lewis’s cases, not just the Firestone case. He found examples of days where Lewis billed for 39 hours; 31 hours; 40 hours; 71 hours.
Lewis said that was the result of “block billing,” in which he entered the time for many days all at once.
In a 16-month period in 2003 and 2004, DiMuro calculated in court records, Lewis billed his clients for 3,620 hours, or an average of 226 hours per month, or 7.4 hours per day, 365 days per year.
Lewis said he worked nights and weekends, in addition to his bar duties and television hosting.
As the suit progressed in Fairfax Circuit Court, Lewis’s lawyers angered Fairfax judges by failing to respond to basic requests and orders. The judges started slapping Lewis’s lawyers with financial sanctions. First $2,000. Then another $2,000. Then $5,000, $7,500 and finally a $10,515 hit after Lewis failed to appear for his deposition last month.
Lewis said his lawyer, Michael P. Freije, had released him from appearing, although he had been subpoenaed. Freije told Judge David S. Schell there had been a misunderstanding, but Schell was clearly upset and ordered Lewis to appear in DiMuro’s office the following week as well as pay the highly unusual fifth court-imposed sanction.
Lewis said he couldn’t be there, because of family obligations. Rather than defy the court, he said, he agreed to pay Firestone and settled the case.