The incomparable ability of estate litigation to drag on is literally a joke, a joke so old and so well-known that more than 150 years ago Charles Dickens opened the novel Bleak House with reference to the fictional Jarndyce and Jarndyce estate proceeding that had been going on for generations.
Sylvan Lawrence was one of the largest owners of real estate in downtown Manhattan when he died in December 1981. Last week, a mere 31 years, 5 months, and 2 weeks later, an appellate court in New York decided the fee dispute between his estate and Graubard Miller, the firm his wife (who died in 2008) hired in 1983 to represent the estate in litigation against one of his partners (who died in 2003). New York Law Journal article here; New York Appellate Division opinion here.
By the end of 2004, Lawrence’s widow, Alice Lawrence, had paid approximately $22 million in legal fees on an hourly fee basis for the estate litigation. Though by that point there was a $60 million offer to settle the case, and her attorneys had internally valued the case at $47 million, Lawrence thought she deserved more, but she was tired of those bills and the uncertainty. Lawrence thus asked the firm to represent her on a contingency fee agreement (40%) and they agreed.
Five months later, in May 2005, after the firm had put another 3,795 hours into the case, the case settled for $111 million.
Lawrence refused to pay the 40%. I wrote about the case before, back in 2007, noting “Ms. Lawrence obviously had the funds available to hire a large corporate firm on an hourly (or flat fee) basis, and to pay all costs of the litigation herself upfront. In so doing, she would have borne all the risk of spending enormous sums of money without a guaranteed return. Instead, she contracted with a firm to bear all of that risk; within five months, it had achieved a result with which she was content.”
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