Legal Ethics

Wisconsin Supremes Mull Case of Lawyer Accused of Lying to Partners (But Not Clients) About Hours

The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week on whether to suspend a lawyer accused of lying to his partners about achieving 1,800 billable hours while correctly billing his clients.

Matthew Siderits is accused of lying to partners about his billable hours at Otjen, Van Ert & Weir to qualify for a bonus in 2007 and 2008, according to the Office of Lawyer Regulation and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blog Proof and Hearsay. A referee has recommended a suspension of 18 months.

Siderits became a partner in 2004 and worked in the area of workers compensation defense. He was the firm’s treasurer and typically entered his time into the computer system. After obtaining a bonus, the OLR brief (PDF) says, he deleted some of his hours from the system. He has since repaid the firm about $60,000.

Siderits maintains he was merely writing down or correcting client bills. In one case, his brief (PDF) says, he spotted a typographical error. In another, he realized he should not bill for all the time spent doing extensive research on a case. Siderits maintains he did not violate ethics rules, and if he did, he does not deserve an 18-month suspension.

The case is in the news after a New York Times article ran questioning inefficiencies in the billable hour system. The former partner who wrote the article, Robert Pozen, is now a Harvard business lecturer. He says his expertise worked against him when he worked at a Washington law firm.

“For me, hourly billing was a raw deal,” Pozen wrote. “I ran the risk of being underpaid because I answered questions too quickly and billed a smaller number of hours.”

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