Judges: Law Clinic's Work Worth More Than Peanuts

Leah Hill and Clinic Students in The National Law Journal, June 06, 2013

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Law students who participate in clinics may not yet be lawyers, but their time and effort still has monetary value.

That's the gist of a report by a federal judge in New York who were asked to evaluate an application for nearly $64,000 in legal fees filed by Fordham University School of Law's Family Advocacy Clinic against the New York City Department of Education.

Clinic director Leah Hill and her students spent more than two years helping the parents of an 11-year-old boy with learning disabilities navigate the city's public schools system, and ultimately secured him special resources and a new school.

The department objected to the clinic's fee request, arguing that the educational goal of law school clinics inherently leads to overstaffing and overbilling on legal matters. It requested a 75 percent discount—which would have reduced the students' fees to about $16,000.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Peck concluded that the department overstated any overbilling and overstaffing on the matter, and recommended that it pay $43,993 to the clinic in a report submitted to U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon.

Hill said that award—should it stand—would represent a huge victory for the clinic, which has never before sought fees from the department despite a string of successes.

"This case was so egregious that I felt like we needed to make a statement," she said, noting that the case took far longer to resolve than she believed necessary. "I think it's a fair decision and I hope it will get the attention of the Department of Education."

Hill hoped the department would be more responsive to the clinic and its clients in the future if faced with the possibility of paying significant legal fees.

In this case, the clinic in 2009 began representing a 7th grade boy who was reading at 1st grade level and suffered from several undiagnosed learning disabilities. The clinic filed a due-process claim, arguing that the department had denied him a free and appropriate public education as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Following several administrative hearings, the clinic helped to secure the boy speech and language therapy, one-on-one tutoring and an eventual move to a private school. The clinic, under the umbrella of the school's Lincoln Square Legal Services, spent nearly 1,000 hours on the proceedings, according to its records, but sought fees for just 344 hours. That discount was an acknowledgement of the clinic's focus on teaching, Hill said.

Even so, the department sought to have certain hours struck, including hours the clinic spent writing a closing brief. (The department called the brief "unnecessary" and an "academic exercise.") The department also took issue with the clinic for spending six hours mooting arguments in preparation for a hearing, although the judges were not swayed.

"The Court finds that many of the specific entries that the DOE identifies as excessive or unnecessary are in fact properly compensable," they wrote.

However, the judges recommended reducing the student's billable hours by 20 percent to eliminate "some duplicative and vague billing, and some excess time spent on certain projects or improperly block-billed."

The clinic requested a rate of $400 per hour for Hill and $150 per hour for each student. The department argued that those rates should have been $350 and $100, respectively. The judges spilt the difference, recommending a $375 rate for Hill and $125 for the students—meant to align with hourly rates charged by local paralegals.

Filing the fee application itself was a learning experience for the clinic's students, and was quite time-consuming, Hill said. Any fees recovered will be used to support clinic activities, she said.

The department has until June 18 to file any objections to the court's recommendation.