Appellate Court Halves Professor's Legal Fees

A US Court of Appeals decision last week cut in half the $176,137 in legal fees originally awarded a Harvard Law Professor for winning a landmark Cambridge civil rights case four years ago.

Judge Frank M. Coffin said last week that he reduced to $81,987 the fee Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law Laurence H. Tribe '62 will receive because the original billing was "excessive," according to an article that appeared in The Boston Globe yesterday.

Tribe, a nationally recognized expert on First Amendment issues, had represented successfully Grendel's Den, a local restaurant, in challenging a legal statute upholding a neighborhood church's right to limit liquor licensing within its immediate vicinity. Under Massachusetts law at that time, churches and schools could veto liquor licenses for any establishments within a 500-foot proximity.

In spite of the lost fees, Tribe said yesterday that he was "gratified by the award of fees by the Court of Appeals," in a statement left in his Law School office.

Under the 1976 Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act, he was entitled to state and local compensation for legal services in a successful case.


Assistant Attorney General Judith S. Yogman, who worked with State Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti in protesting Tribe's bill for services, explained that the "lack of standards" in the Fees Awards Act "only makes for a lot of wasteful litigation."

Coffin said that the fee initially awarded Tribe by US District Judge Joseph L. Tauro was for "inordinately large numbers of hours."

For example, Coffin wrote in his decision for the three-judge panel, Tribe claimed he spent 18 hours writing an 18-line footnote about three ancient English statues.

Tribe originally set a $275-an-hour rate for 640.5 hours of work, which the appellate court reduced to $175-an-hour for 468.5 hours.

Goldston Professor of Law Detley F. Vagts '49 said that the outcome of the case should "encourage people to keep better records."

Much of the controversy centered on Tribe's "lack of precision in record-keeping something that "one wouldn't expect from someone experienced in business-like practices."

Vagts also said he did not believe the court decision would have any bearing on a lawyer's willingness to take on such cases. "The judge," he said, "is not exactly setting poverty level fees."