Wednesday, September 18, 2002
Molina Keeps Pressure on Pellman Over Law Firm Billings
By a MetNews Staff Writer
County Supervisor Gloria Molina yesterday tabled a motion for oversight of county counsel billings, but she criticized the county lawyers’ office for taking six weeks just to compile data on how much is paid out to contract law firms.
“I’m concerned that it takes that long just to get basic information,” Molina said.
County Counsel Lloyd “Bill” Pellman reported that his office has paid $52.3 million this year to outside law firms to handle lawsuits and other legal business. The county’s total legal costs, including $55 million spent by Pellman’s office in-house, comes to $107.5 million.
Molina demanded that Pellman compile the figures after criticizing a decision earlier this year to defend a retaliation case brought by a former Department of Children and Family Services employee. The worker, Rebecca Lizarraga, eventually accepted a $450,000 settlement, but not before the law firm handling the case for the county racked up more than $170,000 in legal fees.
Molina said a supervisor in the County Counsel’s Office should have called a halt to the firm’s work after reviewing the case and seeing that there was no way a jury could find for the county.
In her motion yesterday, Molina called for a new county counsel “managing partner,” with private sector experience, to review case files being worked on by outside firms to see that costs are not being run up unnecessarily.
But she asked for time to reconsider the plan after several of her colleagues pointed out that the managing partner’s job at private sector firms is to press for as many billable hours as possible.
Molina said what she meant was someone akin to a legal supervisor in a corporation, who reviews outside counsel’s billings to keep them in line.
“There always seems to be a culture of doing things the way we’ve been doing them” in the county, Molina said. “The lack of management tools concerns me as a client.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky noted that the city of Los Angeles, where he and Molina both served as City Council members, handles a much greater percentage of its cases in-house.
But Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, when he served as city attorney, was roundly criticized by his mayoral predecessor for causing unnecessary expense to the city for settling far too many cases.
Many critics have suggested that referring city cases to outside firms actually would save the city money—the opposite of what Pellman’s critics have argued.
Pellman told supervisors that his office probably saves more money by using outside firms, since his office pays only $120 an hour—-a relatively low fee—to handle most cases. The top figure is $130 an hour.
Molina will return with an updated motion for Pellman’s office in two weeks.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company