As Richard Ackland wrote here last Friday, the legal profession has come a long way from the days when clients were billed according to the weight of paper prepared by their lawyers. But legal bills remain a touchy subject. Here’s what some Crikey subscribers working in the law think of current billing practices:

A (not very Machiavellian) lawyer writes:

I used to work at an American law firm. They billed in ten minute units (1/6th of an hour), so a ten second phone call: “Hi, have you done it? No? Get onto it then” cost about AU$150. My experience, over a few countries, and particularly in Australia, is that the six minute unit thing is overblown. Most lawyers I know are working extremely hard, under tight client cost expectations and timeframes, and they just don’t have the time or energy to think of Machiavellian schemes to milk a client for more. I’d rather get home to put the kids to bed (which I managed for the first time this year on Wednesday) than to be working a second more than I have to. It’s a non-story. Clients will also expect you to do a Rolls-Royce job for Ford Falcon money (locking in a fixed quote, often). But they sure will threaten to sue you if you miss something which was never in the agreed scope.

Solicitor Tom McLoughlin writes:

I recently was re-admitted as a solicitor here in NSW under the umbrella of a firm called AAT Legal, principal Alex Tees. I last practised in 1991 then lapsed. In my successful reapplication I referred to a case I won for Baker & McKenzie (BM) against a Hong Kong developer, a former client to BM, for a debt of about $600K legal fees racked up over just five months. That’s right $600K legal fees in five months. The fees related to the Burgundy Royale Casino development in Darwin and Datuk Tan Sri Wong wanted to sue Westpac and others over the progress of the development (one wag suggested Wong chose litigation over bank interest as the cheaper option!). BM then got dudded just like Westpac and the case turned on whether the general practice of billable hours had efficacy. To prove this before Einfeld J (Federal Court) against our own former client, I, with the help of the slogging typist pool at BM, produced four whopping volumes (think A to D Encyclopaedia Britannica) itemising what indeed was actually done based on time sheets. This billable hour itself was on trial because BM based its practice on the general top law firm billing approach. Einfeld accepted all the BM documentation, so I feel partly responsible for validating the legal industry billable hour as it exists today. The Law Society welcomed me back with open arms on February 8th 2006. Frankly I say it was the least they could do.

Another lawyer writes:
This is so not the issue. A cheap shot by a lazy journo at The Fin. The cost of access to justice has nothing to do with time costing. It might have something to do with the breadth of discovery notices, the lack of judicial supervision of “fishing expeditions”, the difficulty of defending yourself against complex claims by regulators (could you spend $11 million to try to prove you were innocent) and scatter-gun litigation practised by Cashman and his ilk but it is not about how you record the time spent doing the work and trying to help your clients. If you get to the real issues I suggest that there is a story here but you’re skating across the surface of it!