UNION COUNTY — The cost of legal representation can run into the millions for public entities like Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority. Unless, of course, they clamp down on costs and adopt the states best practices guidelines. And that is exactly what RVSA did in May.
Long before the New Jersey Office of the Comptroller published a report in June that looked into what municipal attorneys actually earn, RVSA was looking into how they could get control of escalating legal costs. The result was the approval of a Billing Guidelines for Counsel that clearly outlined how legal billing will be accepted, processed and paid.
When RVSA hired Jim Meehan as the new executive director three years ago, they had no idea he would cuts costs the way he did or keep an eye on expenses that in the past were merely approved and paid with few questions, if any. That has all changed.
Not only did RVSA demote general counsel Weiner-Lesniak to special litigation and move in Dennis Estes of Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis to that spot late last year, but they began keeping a very close eye on exactly what was being spent on legal costs.
Estes was charged with keeping a tight reign on what Weiner-Lesniak billed for special litigation, which had amounted to as much as $50,000 or more in monthly charges. In the meantime, Estes required the firm to produce detailed legal reports and billing hours which were then reported to Meehan and the RVSA board.
By the time the spring rolled around, Meehan had another request of the RVSA board, one they agreed to immediately. He wanted the board to request Estes to prepare a policy on billing guidelines for outside counsel.
When asked about this move, the executive director refused to take all the credit, explaining that office administrator Joanne Grimes was the one who actually was on top of that situation.
“Joanne is all over this legal stuff,” he said with a chuckle, admitting he would be lost without her input and savvy eye towards doing the right thing for the authority.
“She does a lot of research and saw the comptroller’s guidelines and brought it to my attention,” he said, adding there was little doubt in his mind the board had an obligation to come up with their own legal billing guidelines based on the state’s recommendation.
“You know, we’re trying to do the right thing here,” Meehan explained, adding that after the board approved moving forward with researching guidelines, Grimes worked closely with Estes to revise the state’s guidelines to fit RVSA and “keep us where we should be legally.”
In April RVSA’s Billing Guidelines Policy for Outside Counsel was distributed to the board for review, then discussed at a Legal Committee meeting and quickly put on the agenda for the May 16 meeting. According to minutes of that meeting, the measure was approved without a problem.
The resolution affirming this was brief but mentioned the guidelines established a “standardized method for reviewing invoices submitted by outside counsel.” Further, as of June 1, these guidelines were officially made part of any request for proposal that RVSA puts out. Meehan felt this was an important step for the authority.
“We want to set the bar higher and be accountable,” the executive director said, pointing out that it was his obligation to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.
While modest about his accomplishments since coming aboard the authority, such as cutting more than $1.5 million from expenses the first year and providing a listening ear to staff that was not there before, Meehan becomes energized when talking about being a good steward for the authority. However, he rarely, if ever, discusses these accomplishments without crediting his staff and all those who work for RVSA.
“This is a team effort. We are all working together to make changes that need to be made and reinforcing others that work well,” the executive director said.
Meehan said the outside counsel billing guidelines is comprehensive and crystal clear. The days of simply approving legal bills without backup information or detailed billing was over.
LocalSource used the Open Public Records Act to obtain a copy of the new billing guidelines, which informs any attorney performing legal work, or even just considering it, that outside counsel must have a litigation plan, which will set out the nature of the issue, strategy, and estimated timeline for services that will be performed.
This plan also has to be updated every six months. A budget also must be prepared and submitted for approval. RVSA guidelines also provide a sample budget for outside counsel to refer to prior to submitting their own budget.
The guidelines go further into detail, outlining exactly what can be charged by outside counsel and what cannot. Critical in the guidelines is that RVSA’s general counsel must be conferred with prior to incurring any expenses for experts, consultants, investigators, temporary attorney’s or outside paralegals and other professional services. This particular issue has racked up hefty additions to Weiner-Lesniak’s billing over the years and will no longer be allowed without prior approval.
RVSA no longer considers administrative expenses and overhead reasonable or appropriate and will not reimburse or pay outside counsel for them. For example, the authority will no longer pay for preparation of billing invoices, time spent analyzing the law firm’s conflict issues, clerical work, case management, continuing education, law firm staff overtime or cell phone charges.