As I mentioned in my last post, the Chronicle has not offered any solutions to the corruption that it perceives in the Probate Court. While it continues to allege corruption in the Courts, it acknowledges that the Probate Courts have instituted fee guidelines that govern the fees charged in cases pending in the Probate Courts. As the Chronicle mentions, the maximum fee that can be charged by an attorney in a case in the Probate Courts is $300/hour, which is substantially lower than the fees charged by attorneys in most types of cases.
Following the articles that ran in 2008 in the Chronicle, the Probate Courts in Harris County instituted fee guidelines that they apply to fees submitted for approval by the Court. Those fee guidelines lay out how much an attorney can charge, the types of matters that he can bill for, etc. While those fee guidelines were instituted as a result of the Chronicle’s allegations, they do nothing to solve the corruption that the Chronicle alleges.
By establishing a cap on the fees that can be charged in Probate and guardianship cases, the guidelines hinder the public’s ability to retain talented attorneys to work on these cases. Under the guidelines, an attorney who has been licensed over 10 years can charge between $200 and $300 per hour. However, there is no provision for ever being able to charge more than $300 per hour. The problem that this creates is that highly skilled attorneys will charge $300 an hour or more by their 13th to 15th year in practice. Thereafter, as their rates increase, they have to take a reduction in their rates if they want to work on probate and guardianship cases. Because many firms will not allow their attorneys to take these kinds of reductions, the attorneys are forced to stop assisting clients with probate cases.
This problem played out dramatically about 3 years ago when all of the probate lawyers at a large firm in Houston had to leave their firm and start a smaller firm because their original firm required them to bill at rates higher than the Probate Courts would approve. This forced those attorneys to either stop practicing the area of law in which they were experts, or they had to leave their firm in order to cut their rates enough to meet the Probate Court guidelines.
Probate and guardianship cases often involve very complex situations, which would naturally require highly skilled attorneys to handle. However, because of the restrictions advocated by the Chronicle, the cap on fees makes it harder to find attorneys who are highly skilled and willing to reduce their fees enough to comply with the guidelines.
In reality, the vast majority of fees charged by attorneys in probate and guardianship cases are reasonable and necessary. Those fees are only submitted to the Court because the Probate Code requires that they be. Allowing the Houston Chronicle to legislate what happens in the Probate Courts is incredibly dangerous because a) the Chronicle does not understand the subject matter, and b) their restrictions would ensure that the public is denied competent legal representation. The last time I checked, Texas adhered to the free market system upon which this country was founded. The public should be given the option to hire any lawyer that they choose, and the lawyers should be allowed to charge the rates that the market will bear. The Chronicle is hindering the free market.