WHAT PRICE JUSTICE?

October 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

There were lawyers ‘way back in 1960. You youngsters will have to take my word for that. Heck, I will even have to take my word for that, because I was a mere 11 years old at the time.

Those 1960’s lawyers had the ingenious idea that bar-mandated fee schedules would accomplish some good things, such as providing some protection for clients against unconscionable fees, giving lawyers a framework for determining what would be reasonable, and would give the courts a measuring device.

I remember when I was admitted to the Mississippi bar, all of us received a navy binder with ethical rules, useful telephone numbers and mailing addresses, and fee schedules.  Later, as a young lawyer in Memphis in 1974, I received my copy of the Memphis and Shelby County bar’s fee schedule.

We lawyers all regarded fee schedules as a benign thing.

Then the US Supreme Court saw a bugbear lurking among that legal finery, and declared fee schedules unacceptable. Legal fees were free to float through the ceiling, and, indeed, the roof; clients be danged. Freed of gravity, legal fees have done what all things do when unfettered by an earthward pull.

Meridian lawyer Dan Self brought me a fascinating document published May 2, 1960, by the Mississippi State Bar. It’s entitled Fee Computation and Law Office Management. It offers a look at how law practice has changed, as well as how it hasn’t changed, in the intervening 51 years. I won’t bore you with the rusty nuts and bolts of law office management, but I am sure you will find some of the fee schedule entertaining.  Consider:

  • Advice and consultation by telephone or in office … $5.00
  • Advice and consultation out of lawyer’s office … $10.00
  • Preparation of Articles of Partnership with capital less than $5,000 … $150.00
  • Incorporation (obtaining charter, drafting by-laws, conducting first meeting of stockholders and directors and preparing minutes thereof, and reporting organization to the Secretary of State) … $250.00
  • Will or codicil for estate with value less than $2,500 … $15.00
  • Will or codicil for estate with value greater than $2,500 … $25.00
  • Certficate of title for 32-year chain of title … $50
  • Complaint for divorce, custody or separate maintenance, uncontested … $100.00
  • Complaint for divorce, custody or separate maintenance, contested … $150.00, plus time for trial
  • Chancery court trials: Preparation of pleadings … $100; Court appearances per day … $150

I can testify that these fees were aspirational by the time I spent any time in Mississippi court rooms. Around 1981, I tried a three-day trial before then-Chancellor Howard Pigford. Since I prevailed, he awarded my client a “reasonable attorney’s fee” in the princely sum of $150. That was $50 a day for some heavy lifting.

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