The reputation of the legal profession can be likened to a modern jet airliner. It travels much of the time on auto pilot. It can withstand heavy turbulence and it very rarely crashes. However, when a crash does occur, it usually leaves few if any survivors. Such a crash occurred on September 16, 2010.

It was an ordinary Thursday morning. The auto pilot was performing its job. The radar showed no sign of oncoming turbulence and all other systems appeared to be functioning correctly. This steady state of affairs changed suddenly when word began to spread about an article in The Australian by Gold Walkley award winning journalist Hedley Thomas. The article began as follows: 

“$300-an-hour legal secretaries 

A LEADING lawyer has launched an attack on the profession over the ‘gross and obvious overcharging’ by law firms that use secretaries as paralegals. 

The secretaries’ mundane work is billed at up to $300 an hour despite their salaries being less than $20 an hour.

Brian Bartley, chairman of the Queensland Law Society’s ethics committee, has called on lawyers to take action to end such abuses…”

The airport fire engines raced to the crash site but it was too late. Responses and links to the article were flowing on Twitter. Comments began piling up at the end of the article on The Australian’s website and bloggers around the world were warming up their WordPresses. 

At the end of the article, one commenter added “The amount of money the lawyers/legal profession charge for routine work is a disgrace. There should be an inquiry into these huge incredible charges!!!” 

There were comments and tweets from many different perspectives including from lawyers stating that they were against such practices and did not engage in them.

The article led to the president of the Law Society of NSW, the CEO of the Queensland Law Society and the president of The Law Council of Australia being put in a position of having to defend the reputation of the profession.  

The Australian article ended with these words:

“Mr Bartley said his firm did not charge for the work done by its secretaries and the majority of solicitors charged ethically. He said clients paying $300 an hour for work done by secretaries described as paralegals were probably unaware the term ‘covers a broad range from the experienced, long-serving clerk who never got around to qualifying . . . down to the secretary who left school last week’.”

But wait just one moment! Why was this a news item on the morning of September 16, 2010? The Australian article cited only one specific case of overcharging and a quick check revealed that this incident occurred a decade ago. The firm involved in that case put out a statement that it learned its lesson and had not since engaged in such practices. 

No new cases were cited in the article and there was not even a quote from a law firm client complaining about being overcharged. Why was ‘lawyer overcharging’ an issue at that moment? There was a clue in the fourth-last paragraph of the article: “Mr Bartley … opened the debate with an article this month in the legal journal Proctor”.

In the September 2010 issue of Proctor – the official journal of the Queensland Law Society – Mr Bartley had written a one page article describing a number of ways that time billing could be abused. The incident from a decade ago and older cases were cited in his article.

The law firm of which Brian Bartley is a partner, Brian Bartley & Associates, promotes itself as having “particular expertise” in “professional indemnity and insurance litigation” and “professional disciplinary” matters. 

Brian Bartley may be the chairman of the Queensland Law Society’s ethics committee but the Proctor article was written under his name as opposed to being an official communiqué of the ethics committee.

The crash of a modern jet airliner is usually not the result of a single system malfunction. Crashes are often traced to a number of separate unconnected incidents that have combined in an unexpected way.

Hopefully the crash investigators have been poring over the wreckage looking for answers so that a similar accident can be avoided in the future.

Link to the article in The Australian