A Washington, D.C. firm seeking fees resulting from a successful Freedom of Information Act application learned that transparency is a must, especially when seeking fees from the public fisc.
King and Spalding, LLP sought fees but attempted to file the application under seal, claiming that to reveal its rates, staffing strategies and detailed billing would somehow harm the firm competitively. That unsubstantiated and conclusory claim was rejected in strong terms: “Indeed, there is something untoward about Plaintiff asking to conceal their hourly rates and the work done from public view, while demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars from the public treasury as compensation.” King & Spalding, LLP v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, et al., Civ. No. 1:16-cv-01616, slip opinion at 4, decided April 7, 2020.
The court also noted the firm has made applications in other cases, so their fees and structures have already been subject to public scrutiny.
In any fee application, a court must assess not only the reasonableness of the rates, but the reasonableness of the hours expended. Takeaway? Lawyers need to be prepared to be open and transparent to a court’s inspection when seeking to shift fees. The bills should be detailed, the rates should be competitive, and the hours necessary as balanced against the result. When public money is sought, a higher degree of interest is presumed.