For one Washington, D.C., divorce lawyer recently, handling a high-asset divorce ended in a client dispute uglier than the most bitter of divorces.
Glenn C. Lewis boasts that he's the most expensive lawyer in the D.C. area -- he often charges $850 an hour. Described by the Washington Post as "an acknowledged titan of the D.C. area divorce bar," Lewis is a former president of the Virginia Bar Association with an impressive office and numerous high-profile clients. For years he hosted his own cable access show and has received a lifetime achievement from the Virginia State Bar's family law section.
Lewis was riding high until he took Steve Firestone as a client. The case looked relatively straightforward for a high-asset divorce in D.C., if somewhat acrimonious. It ended up with Lewis suing Firestone for $249,000 in unpaid legal fees - out of a final bill totaling $627,000 -- plus $253,000 in interest. Then, Firestone countersued Lewis for overbilling, excessive fees and legal malpractice.
Last week, Glenn Lewis capitulated and agreed to pay Firestone more than $77,000 in damages plus $25,000 in sanctions for five contempt-of-court citations. Far from repentant, however, he insists that Firestone owes every penny of the $878,000 Lewis sought and that he only settled the case for personal reasons.
An Ugly Divorce, a High-Maintenance Client and $575 an Hour
Steve Firestone's 2004 divorce was ugly, but not the ugliest in history by any measure. The couple had no children and a relatively modest marital estate by Fairfax County standards: a home, an office condo, Firestone's law practice, a few other divisible assets and Steve Firestone's $1.1 million inheritance from his parents. It ended without a trial less than a year after it was filed.
True, there were some unusual issues. Firestone didn't believe his wife's claim that she had cancer, asserting that it was a ploy to increase his alimony exposure. There were problems with Firestone's taxes, and bookkeeping problems at his law practice. Lewis says Firestone was difficult, suffering from depression and bent on revenge.
"This case presented so many more issues that were bigger than getting unmarried," Lewis said. "I had the high-maintenance client."
Firestone's contract with Lewis acknowledged that multiple attorneys might work on his case and they did: Lewis himself at $575 an hour and two associates at around $250 an hour each. The contract also said that Lewis had 30 days to challenge a bill, which he never did.
No one expects a highly acrimonious high-asset divorce to be cheap, but, it's hard not to notice the disparity in what Steve Firestone was charged by Lewis ($627,000) and what his ex-wife paid her divorce lawyer ($73,000).
Lewis had apparently decided he could live with the $378,000 Firestone had paid him until he learned that Firestone's ex-wife had died of cancer not long after the divorce.
"My head exploded," Lewis said. "I was sickened by that. I was horrified to think the case accelerated that. Nothing is more stressful than a divorce case. Stress kills."
On Thursday, part two of this series will cover how Steve Firestone racked up $627,000 in legal fees and how Glenn Lewis defends his billing practices. Stay tuned.
"Dissolution of a relationship gets complicated for high-priced divorce attorney" (The Washington Post, September 26, 2010)