Attorney compensation bill creates a buzz

Capitol Building in Olympia
Senate Bill 5845 causes a stir in Olympia.

Capitol in OlympiaThis post was updated on Feb. 27, 2013

As with every legislative session, there are some interesting developments and tactics that occur during the week leading up to House of Origin cut-off for policy bills, which is today. This year was no different.

A bill introduced on Thursday, Feb. 21, caught the attention of many attorneys and created quite a buzz in Olympia. Senate Bill 5845, submitted by some members of the Senate Health Committee called for requiring, among other things, all Washington attorneys and law firms to charge indigent clients a discounted fee based on a sliding scale. The intent section of the bill explains that the purpose of the bill is to “correct the disparate fee structure between professionals in the legal and medical professions.”

The sponsors aren’t lawyer-haters — among the sponsors is a lawyer, the mother of a lawyer, and the wife of a lawyer. It’s a message of some sort, and, while we’re not quite sure what that message is, we’ll follow up with the sponsors to get a translation and solve the mystery.

Rest assured, it’s lights out for SB 5845… at least for this year!

Update: The Board of Governors Legislative Committee, acknowledging that SB 5845 is technically dead this session, voted Tuesday, Feb. 26 to take a position of opposition on the bill if it should move forward at any time.

11 thoughts on “Attorney compensation bill creates a buzz

  1. George Steele

    The legislature needs to butt out. There are already prohibitions against charging an unreasonable fee, under the RPC’s. I assume that the implementation of this lunacy would also entail mountains of paperwork and attorneys to either take people’s word for it or have to do background checks on prospective clients to see if they really do qualify for the reduced rates? Simply put, if the idiots in the legislature want to force lawyers to charge fees that do not cover their costs to provide the services, the result will be LESS services for those types of clients, not more, as lawyers abandon those areas of practice. Out of curiosity, how many doctors are either no longer doing general practice of no longer taking medicare and medicaid services, precisely because the compensation does not cover the expense and the documentation requirements?

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  3. Licensed Lawyer

    Since graduating law school in 2008, I have had numerous offers to do pro bono work, and few offers to do work for a living wage. Perhaps lawyers who have been practicing prior to the economic crash can afford to work for nothing on occasion, but those of us who struggle daily to repay massive law school loans cannot work for no compensation. I also would like to ask this bill’s author where he/she is getting their “discounted” medical care? The last office visit I had with a physician was billed out at $240.00 for 15 minutes of time. If only I could have a steady client base where I could bill my time at $960.00 a hour – the parity rate in the medical profession – my financial status would definitely be looking up.

  4. Alan S. Funk

    When Shakespeare wrote, “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” he was referring to ways that the rebellion might be successful. Lawyers are in a unique position to protect the rights of individuals. If this becomes law, lawyers would be unable to practice in areas of law that serve the low income sections of society. This bill would require lawyers to take every case, whether paid or not. This bill would prevent lawyers from withdrawing. I am a family law attorney. I discourage my clients from over-litigating their case – especially when children are involved. Unfortunately, sometimes the main deterrent to reduce fighting over who gets the dishes, or whether visits with the children begin at 8am or 9am is the attorney’s bill.

    As Franni T wrote:

    Eight of the sponsors have prior involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has promoted model legislation on tort reform, attorney compensation (including “Private Attorney Contract Sunshine Act”), and other issues:

    This is big business, seeking advantage in the court system, and make no mistake about it.

  5. EH

    If I were an attorney for the banks, big business, or creditors generally this bill would be the best thing since sliced bread. Every case could be won against a pro se or by default as no attorney could afford to represent the poor regularly. At best, you might get a pro bono lawyer that moonlights helping the disadvantaged from time to time. Likewise, pro bono resources would dry up as why should you contribute when every lawyer has a legal duty to represent for virtually free. I doubt any of the attorney’s that support this bill represent the economically disadvantaged on a regular basis.

    Further, to enforce parity is an apples to oranges comparison. There is an entire industry of insurance, HMO’s, grants, and other methods for doctors to get paid. Even with that, hospitals around the country are shutting down ER’s and practices that would force them to take clients that cannot pay and there is no method to get compensation.

    If this bill were to pass, it would be more than shutting down a few ER’s, it would be a wholesale destruction of the few practices devoted to helping anyone in the lower economic tiers.

  6. Tom Westbrook

    There is no doubt we are privileged to do what we do and to help people at self imposed reduced rates or pro bono. Been doing it for 40 years. Giving in to my capitalist roots, I think it is time for our legislators to spend their time and our tax dollars coming up with a way for people to get jobs so they aren’t so impoverished. Give people access to JOBS.

    Everyone needs access to justice – I never have declined to represent someone because of their economic status and take great pride in fashioning ways to make legal representation affordable. Here’s a satirical thought, maybe we should charge more for the economically advantaged folks and give the overage to the legislature to spend as wisely as they do. In the meant time, do you think they will finally have any discussions on a budget that can be developed to grow our economy so more people can have more oppotunity?

  7. John Sullivan

    In purpose and effect this profoundly misguided attempt to transform us into serfs of the state as a condition of granting us a professional license differs little from calls inside WSBA for many years to impose mandatory pro bono. In the discussions around APR 28 it was once proposed to impose mandatory service to the state to benefit the less prosperous constituents of the political class upon LLLT practitioners. It appears that did not make it into the final version of APR 28. That is a good thing.

    Party affiliation and the politics of this is largely irrelevant. Whatever the motivation, the truth of what is being attempted is readily apparent – to confiscate from us the fruits of our labor and redistribute it to purchase the loyalty and support of those who empower the dominant political class. Regardless of the politics of it or the motivation, the effect will be the same – distortion of the market increasing demand to levels that cannot be met by the available supply, leading to increasing subsidization and, ultimately, calls for bureaucratic rationing.

    Outside the context of criminal prosecution no individual has a right to have the state confiscate the wealth or labor of others just so they can enjoy the highest level of legal representation. In addition, doing so will work just as poorly as the utopian dream of providing “Cadillac” level healthcare for all. It is unaffordable, unsustainable and ultimately dystopic.

    This bill varies only in detail and in balance of powers considerations from calls within the WSBA over the years for imposing mandatory pro bono obligations. Mandatory pro bono imposed upon LLLT was part of the early drafts of APR 28. Fortunately, it appears to have dropped out. If we want to make legal representation more affordable, we think creatively outside the box regarding the basic monopoly we enjoy under the licensing authority of the Supreme Court. The LLLT initiative under APR 28 is a start. The legal needs of many do not require the attention of a licensed attorney.

    I have voluntarily offered services pro bono (or modified pro bono) over the course of my now lengthy career as a function of my unalienable responsibility to act with love and charity toward my fellow Washingtonians. That is a responsibility the state has no legitimate authority to interfere with or take from me. Nor does it have the legitimate authority to transform my relationship to it into one of serfdom just because my profession is licensed. Yeah, yeah, this was just a baby step and it went away, so you may choose to dismiss my comments as hyperbolic. Nevertheless, the worldview that even gives consideration to a bill like this leads to something that never works and is incompatible with our fundamental rights. Experience illustrates it will not go away. It must be resisted permanently.

  8. Kathleen Hopkins

    While there may have been good intentions behind the bill, I am quite surprised a lawyer was a sponsor. Perhaps s/he should study up on separation of powers and anti-trust law, not to mention brushing up on RPC 6.1. Our Supreme Court regulates the practice of law in a fair and reasoned manner. If our legislators were serious about ensuring equal access to justice, they could do so by providing more funds to legal services programs, and enacting (and adequately funding) a “Civil Gideon” law.

  9. gary w. east

    I have practiced private civil law in this state since 1969 as an associate, as partner and as a solo practitioner. Over these many years i have tailored my total feees as well as my hourly rates to meet the needs and abilities of my many clients; institutions, large and small businesses, and individuals. I cannot estimate how many are the times that I have been outright ‘stiffed’ by a client who could not or would not pay for services renderde-no matter the result. Nor can I guess how many times that I severly discounted fees and costs owed me by a client who asked for same. Furthermore, there many, many times that I simply stopped tracking the hours spent working for a client who I knew could not pay for the service, but who desperately need it. Over these many years I have shared with my professional contemporaries bits and pieces of client payment stories that contaied some or all of the above features, and they have done likewise with me. My point: I strongly believe that most of us in private practice do as much or more than what the authors of this ill-conceived legislation propose to do by statutory mandate.

    You describe the sponsors as being lawyers or related to lawyers. I must conclude they are not lawyers of my cloth or style of practice, for if they were, they would not even consider such a worthless piece of legislative meddling in a flexible and compassionate system that has served me, my clients, and my close professional sisters and brother so well over our careers. I strongly urge the WSBA to jump on this horrific waste of the legislature’s time and energy by opposing same with all of its might. I urge my fellow lawyers who practice as do I, to let these legislative mischief-makers know that the world they are trying to create by law, exists and in most cases works very well, thank you, without a layer of statutory oversight that is as unworkable as it would be unrealistic.

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