BigLaw partner added ‘fictional hours’ to client bills, meriting a 2-year suspension, court says

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Clients were satisfied with the work of lawyer Doreen Zankowski, who worked “exceedingly hard” and produced excellent results, according to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

But substantial evidence shows that Zankowski added “fictional hours” to clients’ bills, amounting to hundreds of hours, according to the top Massachusetts court’s March 25 decision. That misconduct merits a two-year suspension rather than the six-month suspension imposed in a prior decision by a single member of the court, the new decision said. Reuters Legal and Law360 have coverage.

The overbilling occurred at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, which concluded that Zankowski had inflated final bills by about $216,000. Saul Ewing returned excess payments or credited clients for what it deemed to be overbilled hours. Zankowski is now a partner at Duane Morris.

Saul Ewing had investigated after Zankowski told her department chair that she worked 3,173 billable hours and more than 720 nonbillable hours in 2015.

A hearing committee didn’t credit Zankowski’s testimony about working those hours, especially since Zankowski had vacationed in Europe and made three personal trips to Hawaii that same year. She also traveled to San Diego, Denver, Chicago, New York and several cities in Texas, the Supreme Judicial Court said.

Zankowski didn’t keep contemporaneous billing records. Instead, she relied on her assistant to create first-draft billing reports that Zankowski edited before they were entered into the system. The firm would then produce draft bills on a monthly basis. Between March 2015 and November 2015, Zankowski added 450 hours to the draft bills.

Some of the hours were credited to herself and some to associates. Zankowski testified she actually did the work but credited it to associates to give clients the benefit of the lower billing rate.

“Other than the respondent’s own testimony, however, there is nothing to support her claim,” the Supreme Judicial Court said. “The hours were not reflected on the respondent’s records and somehow ‘missed’ by her assistant when she entered the respondent’s time in the firm’s timekeeping system. There were no documents or other work product that substantiated the claim.”

Zankowski would have had to work more than 24 hours a day on 12 different dates—if the hours Zankowski said she worked but attributed to associates were added to her own hours, the court said.

The court said there was no need to prove that all 450 hours added to client bills were fraudulent. “It suffices to say that fraudulent billing was established and supported by the substantial evidence,” the court said.

Zankowski did not immediately respond to an ABA Journal email seeking comment.

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