TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: School, college legal bills can reveal more than just attorneys’ fees

People enjoy bashing lawyers for the handsome hourly rates they charge, and stories about how much government agencies spend on legal fees can give the lawyer-bashers endless hours of “$250 an hour for WHAT?” enjoyment. But that’s not why journalists should be asking to see the legal bills that public schools and colleges run up.

Adept watchdog journalists know that the bills submitted by lawyers that schools and colleges hire can tell tales about what is going on beneath the surface of those agencies.

First, an agency that runs up unusually large legal bills may have some underlying problems worth investigating. Some lawsuits can’t be helped, but if your school or college is getting sued with regularity — and is paying out big settlements, the amount of which should be public if it’s a state institution — it may indicate a larger management issue.

Second, the choice of law firms at times may be tainted with politics or self-interest. If you see a lawyer getting a lucrative piece of business from your university, it’s worth checking whether that lawyer’s firm has political or family ties to the decision-maker.

Third, the legal bills that attorneys submit for reimbursement may, when closely examined, reveal questionable excesses. It’s legitimate to pay an experienced law-firm partner $300 an hour to attend a court hearing, but probably not to operate a copy machine.

Finally, finding out what lawyer the university has hired can be a clue to how much trouble the college thinks it’s in, or who the college is hoping to influence.

Remember that, in some jurisdictions, the decision to hire outside legal counsel — and the rates they receive — may flow through a state Attorney General’s office rather than the college itself. If the college claims not to know what it spends on lawyers, find out who does.