Law Practice

Fuss Over Firm's $1.8 M 'Pro Bono' Fee

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A major Seattle-based law firm’s effort to collect $1.8 million from taxpayers in a pro bono case has ignited a firestorm of controversy.

As provided for by statute, Davis Wright Tremaine wants to collect for seven years of work for a prevailing plaintiff in a reverse-race-discrimination case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Especially since the plaintiffs sought no damages, an attorney fee award also at least arguably serves as a deterrent not only to the defendant school district but to others watching from the sidelines, explains the Seattle Times.

But some question whether it’s appropriate for a law firm acting for the public good to charge attorney fees, the newspaper reports.

The defendant apparently didn’t anticipate the legal bill, and attorney Shannon McMinimee, who represents the Seattle Public Schools, says it’s “disingenuous” for Davis Wright to seek payment for pro bono work, the Times reported earlier.

Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says a law firm also should consider whether attorney fees are a hardship. “If you know that you’re going to be taking money away from the school system,” she tells the newspaper, “and the school system is going to be less able to do their job … then that’s something that I think needs to be taken into consideration ethically by the person seeking the fees.”

The Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center says in a memo (PDF) that it’s okay to collect attorney fees. “Firms, however, will reasonably differ as to how they handle any fee awards,” the memo states. A survey found that many deduct costs and then donate the money to charity, or transfer the money to the firm’s charitable foundation.

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