Thursday, February 29, 2024

Jim Dey | Lawyer shopping can be difficult — and costly — experience

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A state lawyers’ disciplinary panel recently charged a prominent Chicago divorce lawyer with over-billing clients.

It can be easy to be fooled by fast-talkers. But here are a couple of rules to live by:

  • Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).
  • Take commercial claims with a grain of salt.

Those truisms are noteworthy in light of misconduct charges recently filed by the Illinois Attorney’s Registration & Disciplinary Commission against divorce lawyer Jeffery Leving.

It that name rings a bell, it should.

Leving advertises himself all over the Chicago area as a “nationally known father’s-rights attorney” who pursues “justice for fathers everywhere.”

If the ARDC’s over-billing charges are accurate, that’s not all Leving zealously pursues.

The allegations against Leving and others in his 20-member firm allege he oversaw a carefully constructed lawyer-billing frenzy. When clients ran out of money or patience, Leving’s law firm dropped them.

Citing eight examples, the ARDC staff charged Leving with “charging or collecting” unreasonable fees and “failing to refund” unearned fees.

If Leving is found guilty, he could face penalties ranging from reprimand and censure to a suspension/revocation of his law license.

His law firm issued a statement that said the 71-year-old Leving “disputes violating the code of professional responsibility” and will “vigorously” defend himself.

Whatever the outcome, the details of Leving’s business practices outlined by the ARDC won’t help his reputation.

In one case involving a client seeking to have child-support payments reduced, Leving’s firm charged $9,600 — a $6,000 retainer plus another $3,900.26 — over a five-month period in which little of substance was done.

“The only pleadings filed … were an appearance and a motion to withdraw. At no point did the Leving firm file a motion on (his client’s) behalf to have his child-support payments adjusted,” the ARDC charged.

The charges reveal Leving’s staffers engaged in a “team concept process” in which a group of them reviewed a case “while charging individual fees.”

The ARDC said “multiple attorneys would immediately begin billings on the clients’ legal matters and quickly deplete (clients’) initial retainers.”

When clients could not or would not pay more, Leving’s firm dropped them. The ARDC said Leving’s firm withdrew after less than eight months from 62 percent of the 376 Cook County cases it filed between January 2017 and May 2022. As grounds for withdrawal, it cited “irreconcilable breakdown of the attorney-client relationship.”

In another case, the ARDC reported that Leving’s firm exhausted a $10,000 retainer in roughly a month, but “during that time, the firm filed only an appearance and motion to substitute counsel.”

During a five-month period in 2017, Leving’s firm charged the same client a total of $17,009. The bill reflected the time of “three attorneys, one legal assistant, two paralegals and one private investigator … each of whom billed (the client) for work he or she allegedly performed.”

In another case — one involving a simple divorce between a couple with no children — Leving’s firm sent bills for more than $80,000 over a four-month period. After Leving’s firm withdrew, the client “’appeared pro se (represented himself) in his divorce proceedings because he lacked the funds to hire another lawyer.”

The ARDC reported that client had “paid the Leving firm $59,000 in legal fees.”

One particularly revealing claim is that Leving’s firm, when it decided to dump clients, charged them for preparing and filing withdrawal motions.

In one example, the ARDC said “three different Leving attorneys spent and charged (the client) for at least 10.4 hours for time spent working on withdrawing from (the client’s) representation, including travel time.”

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