Working the System
I spent the afternoon yesterday watching the oral argument in the Ohio Supreme Court in the disciplinary case involving Richard Agopian. I actually saw a tape; the argument was last week, and a decision will be coming down soon.
Agopian is a well-known criminal defense attorney in Cuyahoga County, and like most criminal defense attorneys, he handles a lot of assigned criminal cases. He got into trouble because an audit of the fee bills showed the numbers didn't compute: if you added up the time he'd submitted on various cases, it showed that he was claiming he'd worked as much as 28 hours a day. On a Saturday, no less. And he did some things that, shall we say, might raise some eyebrows. (As if putting in 28 hours on a Saturday wouldn't.) In one case, he was appointed on October 11. According to his fee bill, he spent an hour opening the file, and another 9.6 preparing and filing motions. He attended a pretrial two weeks later, and logged an hour for that, at which time he found out that his client had retained private counsel. He submitted a bill for the $400 maximum. The chances that he actually spent 9.6 hours preparing motions are about the same as the chances of Pauly Shore making a good movie.
But go back to that phrase, "$400 maximum." Watching the oral argument was interesting. Justice O'Connor had a hard time accepting the notion that a lawyer would be paid a maximum of $400 for a criminal case. That somebody would have a hard time accepting that is not unusual; Judge Nancy Russo, who was a member of the Task Force on Pro Se and Indigent Litigants, told me that Richard Boddicker, another member and the head of the Ohio Public Defenders Commission, refused to believe her when she told him what the maximum fees in Cuyahoga County were, finally relenting only when she had a copy of the fee schedule faxed to her to show him. I've had cases where I spent three days in trial to get that $400. I know attorneys who've spent a week in a kiddy-rape trial, and gotten the maximum fee for a first-degree felony -- $900. The old saw that for every hour in trial you spend three in preparation is especially valid for that kind of case: it's hard to get motivated when you're being paid a pittance for a simple cocaine possession, but money takes a second seat to the realization that your client's freedom for the rest of his life is riding on you.
And I'll bet you that Richard Agopian had more than a few cases like that.
I'm sure there are some cases where Agopian made more than he should have. Check that: made more than the fee schedule allowed. Because there's a big difference between what he should have made and what was allowed. Agopian isn't exactly some rube fresh out of law school; he's been doing criminal defense work for more than twenty years.
This county is required, like every other in the United States, to provide counsel for indigent defendants. It has chosen to do so at levels that are frankly obscene. Even assuming that Agopian charged for ten hours when he should have charged for five, does anybody believe that $400 that he did get is an adequate fee for representation of a criminal defendant in a felony case, let alone the $200 that he should've gotten?
Whatever Richard Agopian got out of the system, the system got a lot more out of him.