The "greedy lawyer" is one of our most enduring professional stereotypes, right up there with boring accountant and parasitic news reporter. But greed is hard to define, and yardsticks for measuring it aren't always reliable. Here are some recent cases to consider:
Absurd hourly rate? Plaintiff attorney Willie Gary flaunts his wealth and sky-high fees. Williegary.com features photos of his Rolls Royce and custom-made Boeing 737.
He recently asked a Broward County judge to approve a $24.5-million fee request for 2,200 hours' work, or $11,000 per hour, and then bragged about it in a statement. The trial had ended in a hung jury.
His opponent, defendant Motorola, argued Gary should get less than $1,000 an hour; the judge ended up trimming the rate. But Gary insisted it was a bargain. He said that if defense counsel hadn't "cheated" - the attorneys were sanctioned for manipulating witness testimony - his team would have won the $10-billion suit and taken a $4-billion cut. That's an hourly rate of more than $210,000 for 19,000 hours' work.
Running up the bill? Richard Celler's $300 hourly rate may sound like minimum wage by comparison, but he makes up for it in volume, filing several hundred overtime-violation suits a year. That didn't please U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke, who complained last month that greedy lawyers were inundating the federal court with such cases, "no doubt fueled by the fact" that even innocent employers find it cheaper to settle.
Celler didn't disagree. "Many others who practice (overtime law) use the federal court system as a mechanism to extort money from employers," he said in a court filing. But he added that he's different because he takes on only legitimate claims. And when Cooke accused him of dragging out a case in order to run up the bill, he withdrew in disgust, forfeiting any fees. No one with his heavy case load would bother, he said.
Selling freedom to the rich? Ormond Park businessman Marc Zboch agreed to pay Barry Cohen $10-million to block a possible fraud indictment.
After the government dropped its investigation, however, Zboch refused to make full payment, arguing that Cohen could have ended the case far sooner if he made it his top priority, as promised. Cohen's reply: You pay me for results, not process.
Unfair share? Tampa Bay Water settled a 3-year-old lawsuit this month for $7.9-million, but its legal team, led by Richard Harrison, will keep 85 percent of it.
A raw deal? The utility, not Hamilton, made the decision to settle the case rather than go to trial - and suffer the additional cost, distraction and risk. Utility officials say they're happy to move on.
Scott Barancik can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 8938751.
Morgan & Morgan (Fort Lauderdale)
$300 per hour
Federal judge accused the $300-per-hour lawyer of improperly running up his bill.
Status: Celler withdrew from case, refused any fee.
Gary Law Firm (Stuart)
Sought fee of $11,000 per hour although trial ended in a hung jury.
Status: Court trimmed his fee; Gary's client is seeking a new trial.
Barry Cohen Cohen
Jayson & Foster (Tampa)
Helped save a businessman from criminal prosecution, but client is balking at $10-million fee.
Status: Lawsuit is under way.