Professor plum gets a clue about attorney fees

Ask Judge Smith

Judge Layne Smith

Background: Civil trial lawyers sell their time, experience and track records for delivering results. Based on supply and demand, they charge what the market will support. Most civil trial lawyers bill their time at agreed hourly rates or charge contingency fees based on the results obtained.

Q. Judge Smith, how do courts decide the amount of attorney fees the winning party should be awarded? Vickie

A. Vickie, trial courts hold evidentiary hearings and follow the criteria and guidance established by the appellate courts.

Suppose Professor Plum loans Miss Scarlet money and the two enter into a contract that allows the prevailing party to recover his or her attorney fees. When Miss Scarlet defaults by failing to make her monthly payments, Professor Plum sues her for breach of contract. He wins at trial, and a local jury awards him damages.

Afterward, a hearing is scheduled to determine how much Miss Scarlet owes Professor Plum to cover his attorney fees. Determining this amount will hinge on three factors.

How much lawyer time was needed?

The first factor is how much lawyer time was needed, considering the novelty and difficulty of the case. Professor Plum’s lawyer will provide the court with her billing records and give a thorough explanation of what she did and why. Her time will be scrutinized, and she will be subject to cross-examination.

Lawyers must justify the time they bill, and courts must determine whether their legal work was necessary and performed efficiently. Courts cut unnecessary, duplicative, and wasteful time. Let’s suppose Professor Plum’s lawyer billed him for 76 hours, the court approved 72.8 hours and disallowed 3.2 hours.  

What is a reasonable hourly rate?

The second factor is what’s a reasonable hourly rate for the legal services rendered. According to case law, a reasonable hourly rate “is the prevailing market rate in the relevant legal community for similar lawyers of reasonably comparable skills, experience, and reputation.”

Suppose Professor Plum paid his lawyer $300 an hour, but the going rate for equivalent lawyers is $250 an hour. The court will approve $250 as the reasonable hourly rate. Professor Plum can pay his lawyer an extra $50 an hour, but Miss Scarlet only has to pay the going rate.   

Should a multiplier be applied?

The third factor is whether the court applies a multiplier. It’s hard to convince lawyers to take on high-risk, work-intensive cases unless there is the potential for a good payday.

When appropriate, courts apply multipliers to adjust attorney fees to reward lawyers for taking on difficult cases. Encouraging lawyers to litigate difficult cases for enhanced attorney fees provides access to courts for regular people who couldn’t otherwise afford counsel.

What he asked for, what he got, and what might have been.

In our example, Professor Plum sought to recover attorney fees totaling $22,800 ($300 x 76 = $22,800), without the application of a multiplier. Instead, the court awarded him $18,200 ($250 x 72.8 = $18,200).

Suppose Professor Plum’s claim for attorney fees had justified the use of a one-and-a-half times multiplier. If so, the court would have awarded him $27,300 ($250 x 72.8 x 1.5 = $27,300). Collection is a horse of a different color.

J. Layne Smith is a Leon County Judge. Email your questions to

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