Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

“Churn That Bill, Baby” Lawyer Sues for Hurt Reputation

churn that billRemember the “churn that bill, baby” email scandal that rocked international law firm DLA Piper several years ago?

The controversy arose as the firm was embroiled in a 2012 billing dispute with a former client. During the discovery phase of litigation, a string of embarrassing internal emails came to light. In them, firm members joked about their billing practices with comments like “Churn that bill, baby!” and “That bill shall know no limits!” and “I hear we are already 200k over our estimate … that’s Team DLA!”

Needless to say, the client was not amused. The case settled soon after the emails were disclosed.

And that, one would think, was the end of the story.

Gross Negligence and Legal Malpractice

Not so. A former DLA Piper partner is now suing the firm that represented DLA Piper in the billing litigation for what he says was gross negligence in disclosing the emails.

From the ABA Journal: “[A] former DLA Piper partner caught in the crossfire is apparently still smarting about extensive publicity over the email thread’s production in discovery, even though he didn’t write the ‘churn that bill, baby!’ comment …. He contends that his reputation was permanently damaged by [outside counsel’s] production of ‘no less than 246,019 pages of unreviewed, unredacted documents’ and says the firm should have notified him, as an extension of its ethical duty to inform its client, DLA Piper.”

In a complaint filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, the plaintiff asserts claims of legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty. He alleges outside counsel’s “handling of the discovery ... was marred by a series of costly errors steeped in gross negligence,” including:

  • Not consulting with him before releasing the emails;
  • Not getting his consent to release them;
  • Not reviewing the emails for “privilege, relevance, confidentiality, or any other basis for justifiably withholding or redacting the document;”
  • Not getting a “protective order or stamp demarking the production as confidential;”
  • Keeping him in the dark after it became aware of the “life-changing negligence” it had committed for several weeks until “only after it became clear to them that their negligence would lead to a front-page story in the New York Times.”

Think Before You Hit “Send”

The plaintiff says the emails were taken out of context, characterizing them as “part of a much more thoughtful and serious discussion amongst associates and a DLA partner about DLA’s billing habits.” When the emails surfaced, he says DLA Piper threw him under the bus to divert attention from what he calls “problematic DLA professional lapses” regarding its handling of the underlying case.

By the time the emails went public, the plaintiff had already left DLA Piper and joined another firm. He says the “media frenzy” destroyed his reputation, cost him his new job and damaged future employment opportunities.

For its part, DLA Piper characterized the emails as clumsy attempts at humor and said there was no inappropriate billing.

The plaintiff is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. DLA, which reported $2.48 billion in revenue for 2014, is not a party to the malpractice suit, nor is the former client whose fee dispute sparked the controversy.

 

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About the Author

Jay Reeves

jay.reeves@ymail.com | 919-619-2441

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Over the course of his 35-year career he was a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, legal editor, Legal Aid staff attorney and insurance risk manager. Today he helps lawyers and firms put more mojo in their practice through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations.

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