Bonus Explainer: What stops lawyers from overbilling? Their honor, theoretically. It's generally impossible for the average client to know whether his or her lawyer is billing for unnecessary or unworked hours, so clients are expected to trust in their lawyers. For legal scholars, too, overbilling is difficult to study — lawyers may be asked to self-report whether they've been overbilling — but lawyers say that abusing client trust is rare.
If caught, lawyers can face disbarment, suspension, or public censure from the bar, depending on the severity of the offense. They can also face lawsuits or serve jail time for fraud or theft. For example, in 2011, one Chicago lawyer who pleaded guilty to overbilling $2 million was sentenced to six years in prison. If clients suspect they're being overbilled, they can contact — who else? — a lawyer.
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Explainer thanks Stephen Gillers of New York University.