$120 Million In Hourly Billing For A Single Trial: What Happened In Robertson v. Princeton?
The blog “How Appealing” has plenty of links on the $90 million settlement of the donor-intent suit brought against Princeton University by the heirs to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (and now A&P supermarket) fortune, alleging misuse of a 1961 donation of $35 million which had swelled in value to over half a billion dollar.
The case was scheduled to go to trial in New Jersey state court in January. Pretrial litigation costs were $40 million for each side. Princeton expected its own trial costs to reach $20 million; it’s fair to assume that the Robertson’s trial costs would have been the same if not greater.
$80 million to litigate and another $40 million to try a breach of fiduciary duty, accounting and breach of contract dispute between two parties. No appeals, certs, or retrials included.
How could that be? Let’s look at how those numbers compare to other complicated cases like patent infringement, white collar criminal defense, and antitrust.
According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association, the average per-party cost to take through litigation and trial a large (over $25 million at stake) patent infringement / dispute is $5 million. (For all patent cases, the average is $1 million). Patent cases are document intensive, involve numerous expensive experts, and typically require dozens of depositions and motions. They’re often more complicated than large commercial litigation or breach of fiduciary duty cases.
Yet, the Robertson case would have cost twelve times what the biggest patent cases typically do.
Remember the white collar criminal defense that got WilmerHale sued? That “feeding frenzy” of billing was over $12 million in hourly fees, less than one-third what either side here charged, and it involved more than double the documents of Robertson.
So what happened in Robertson?
Sure, the case wasn’t a slip-and-fall:
The university says it produced more than half a million pages of documents in pretrial discovery. The trial witness list had 124 names, 80 witnesses had been deposed, 3,000 pages of briefs were required and 5,000 trial exhibits were identified.
But it wasn’t that big. Here’s how the District Court described the Visa / Mastercard merchant and debit card antitrust case, which settled just before trial a few years ago:
Class Counsel have litigated this case — which did not culminate in settlement until the eve of trial — for seven years. During that time, there were almost 400 depositions of witnesses, including 21 experts who issued 54 expert reports; four rounds of class certification briefing (through the Supreme Court); 16 summary judgment motions, 31 motions in limine, and three Daubert motions; and a pretrial order identifying 230,000 pages of trial exhibits, 730 trial witnesses, and more than 17,000 deposition designations
In re Visa Check/Mastermoney Antitrust Litig., 297 F. Supp. 2d 503 (E.D.N.Y., 2003). Now that’s big.
Yet, that much work — several orders of magnitude larger than Robertson — resulted in a “lodestar” (hours times prevailing rates) fee calculation of $62,545,603 for plaintiffs’ counsel, or one and a half times each side’s bill in Robertson.
The Robertson case was filed July 17, 2002. In the 6 years, 4 months, and 24 days leading up to the settlement announcement, the parties averaged $34,202.65 in costs every single day, or about the same as if each side had one of the most expensive partners in the country (each at $1,000 an hour) and two of the most expensive associates in the country ($600 an hour per associate) working every single day, including weekends and holidays, from 8am to 6pm, taking no more than 2.2 hours in their work day to do anything else, including eating, twittering or answering angry phone calls from their abandoned spouses.
Using more reasonable numbers, like an average rate of $348 an hour, and seven hours of actual, billable hours per day, we still end up with the ridiculous conclusion that each side had seven lawyers working full time for them every day, including weekends and holidays.
Some of these numbers may be unfair. For instance, both sides hired major accounting firms to prepare extensive expert reports. So let’ s very generously assume that these firms performed the same level of accounting work as required for companies with under $1 billion in annual revenue to ensure complete Sarbanes-Oxley compliance: $2.8 million (which I think is a high estimate) for each side.
Let’s also assume “costs,” like copying, postage, phone calls and research equal about 5% of overall billing, as is often the case in business representation. I think that’s actually generous here — $2 million per side will get you an awful lot of copies.
Adding in those expert fees and costs drops the attorneys’ fees to $70.4 million, or a mere $30,098.33 every single day. Using our “reasonable” hourly rates and billable hours, that’s a team of six lawyers working full time every day, including weekends and holidays. For each side.
That’s outrageous: other than the fees, Robertson was closer in size to complicated personal injury litigation than a large, complex commercial dispute like a patent, antitrust, or securities case.
Multi-defendant, multi-claim personal injury cases — e.g., a catastrophic injury or wrongful death at a construction site that raises both product liability and negligence issues — frequently exceed 100,000 documents, 100 potential witnesses, 50 depositions, and 1,000 trial exhibits. I can’t judge what the article meant by 3,000 pages of “briefs,” but, based on the motions and orders available online, I assume that number includes pleadings, motions and exhibits, which is not at all impressive.
Tomorrow we’ll look at how not to spend $120 million bringing a case to trial.