An analysis to determine the similarities between the modus operandi of the Florida Bar and organized crime utilizing a Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel article on government lawyer legal fees.

The article is from the 1/7/98, electronic edition of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun-Sentinel by staff writers Jenni Bergal and Jay Weaver. The article follows:

  1. For nearly a decade, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth has been on a mission to crack down on excessive legal fees. In 1991, he persuaded the state to cap hourly fees for private law firms, and Butterworth says it has reduced legal spending by millions of dollars.

  2. The caps limit hourly rates at $125 for attorneys who do general legal work and $175 for attorneys who do specialized work, such as securities and copyright law. But Butterworth says loopholes remain. Certain entities, such as state universities, are exempt and can hire lawyers at any rate. The university system says it needs that flexibility in certain cases to hire legal specialists.

  3. "We're changing a whole way of thinking. Now, state agencies are no longer the golden brick road to the bank for a lot of Tallahassee lawyers."

  4. --Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth

  5. And some law firms are allowed to bill more than the capped rates, as long as the Attorney General's Office approves a waiver. For example, a Los Angeles firm specializing in entertainment and sports law negotiated with the Florida Department of Commerce for a $275 hourly rate.

  6. Because the rules capping legal fees apply only to certain Florida agencies, law firms can charge the state one rate and local governments another.

  7. The Fort Lauderdale firm Conrad, Scherer & Jenne, for instance, charges Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation $100 an hour for administrative law services under a negotiated capped rate. But it bills the city of Lauderhill $125 an hour for an associate to act as city attorney. And as general counsel to the North Broward Hospital District, it recently upped its rates to $185 an hour.

  8. William Scherer, a partner in the firm, said he loses money on state accounts but does the work because of his ties to state officials. He said the city rate is competitive with other firms and the higher hospital district rate reflects more complex insurance work.

  9. The ways local governments oversee private law firms' rates, performance and legal bills varies widely. Marion J. Radson, chairman of the Florida Bar's local government section, says scrutiny is important. "Governments need to regularly review invoices and supervise the activities of professionals, be they lawyers, architects or contractors," said Radson, who is also Gainesville's city attorney. "You want to guarantee you're getting the service you're paying for." Only a few South Florida cities have written standards for private law firms.

  10. One of them is West Palm Beach, with an in-house legal staff of 14, including seven attorneys. It has an eight-page policy barring outside firms from charging the city more than the lowest hourly rate they bill other government clients.

  11. It also requires that research requiring more than three hours be authorized in advance by the legal department and refuses to pay attorneys for time preparing bills or travel before or after business hours.

  12. "We had a problem with people charging us $1 a page for a fax," said Patrick Brown, West Palm Beach City Attorney. "We were getting nickeled and dimed with those outside costs." Brown said the policy is based on those used in the corporate world, including Disney World.

  13. "We thought, if this is how the private sector monitors its lawyers, why can't we have that too?" Brown said. West Palm Beach is the exception, however.

  14. The Sun-Sentinel found that most cities and local agencies place few restrictions on private law firms. They rarely cap fees, and when they do, firms often exceed the cap and still get paid.

  15. For many government agencies, auditing legal bills means having their finance departments add up figures and total hours, without reviewing charges or determining whether work has been performed. "These types of reviews should be done," said Gainesville city attorney Radson. "After all, we do the government's business. That means we do the people's business."

  16. Sun-Sentinel Copyright (c) 1998, Sun-Sentinel Company and South Florida Interactive, Inc.

This Web page is one in a SERIES OF WEB PAGES examining the modus operandi of the Florida Bar.