If it walks like a duck ...

By The West Virginia Record | Nov 26, 2010

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

The same might be said of fees for class action attorneys, which are often outrageously high and grossly disproportionate to the amount of work involved.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin is but the latest to discuss the matter.

Referring to a recent case in which five Charleston and Clarksburg lawyers had their percentage of a $34 million settlement reduced from 25 to 20 percent, Goodwin commented: "This fee, though less than the requested amount, may still appear excessive to non-lawyers and may perpetuate negative stereotypes about the legal profession."

Goodwin is absolutely right. Even 20 percent of $34 million generates $6.8 million for the richly compensated quintet. That does appear "excessive" and undoubtedly will "perpetuate negative stereotypes."

Goodwin pointed out that a 25 percent fee would have translated to an hourly rate as high as $1,794.87, roughly four times or more what attorneys normally earn.

"Because of the damage caused by the perception of overcompensation of attorneys in class action suits, lawyers requesting attorneys' fees and judges reviewing those requests must exercise heightened vigilance to ensure the fees in fact are reasonable beyond reproach and worthy of our justice system," Goodwin counseled.

"Such perceptions," he continued, "are not only harmful to the legal profession, but undermine the integrity of the entire legal system."

Goodwin clearly believes that the judge in question could have reduced the fees even further –- which seems odd since he is the judge in question. It was his case. He's the one who reduced the fees from 25 to 20 percent. If he thinks they should have been lower, he should have lowered them.

It also seems odd that a judge should be so concerned about perception, worrying that fees may "appear" excessive and create the "perception" of overcompensation.

Either the fees are excessive or they're not, and a conscientious judge should respond accordingly. Otherwise, the "perception" of the judge might be one of weakness and indecision.

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