Fee matrix developed by Professor Brian Fitzpatrick and Brooke Levy ’22 adopted by Federal Court

The Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Beryl A. Howell, ordered a plaintiff to recalculate and resubmit her claim for attorneys’ fees using the so-called “Fitzpatrick Matrix” on Jan. 23, marking the successful launch of a new tool developed for the Department of Justice by complex litigation expert Brian Fitzpatrick, who holds the Milton R. Underwood Chair in Free Enterprise at Vanderbilt Law School.

Brian Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick has published research on attorney compensation and fee awards throughout his career and often provided expert-witness testimony in cases where fee awards are at issue. In 2020, Peter C. Pfaffenroth of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia asked him to take on a daunting task for which Pfaffenroth believed Fitzpatrick was uniquely qualified:  Update the venerable Laffey Matrix, a chart that successful federal litigants had used to calculate and claim reimbursement for their legal fees in the District of Columbia since 1983.

“If you sue the federal government and win, you may be able to file a claim to be reimbursed for your attorneys’ fees,” Fitzpatrick explains. “But the matrix they were using to calculate these fee awards was 40 years old. Most law firms weren’t even using computers in 1983 when the Laffey Matrix was developed, but for years it and another matrix from the 1980s were the only games in town for calculating fee awards. I was asked to develop an updated matrix that reflected modern realities.”

Fitzpatrick volunteered to do the work pro bono if the DOJ would fund a research assistant. He hired Brooke Levy ’22, to conduct a comprehensive audit of recent fee petitions in the D.C. District Court.

“Brooke went into the federal courts’ electronic docketing system and examined every fee petition filed between 2013 and 2020. In cases where lawyers put in the hourly rates they actually charged the client for their work, we pulled that out and put it in a spreadsheet,” he said. “That allowed us to determine the real hourly rates charged in the market.”

Fitzpatrick presented the updated matrix to the Department of Justice in late 2021. The chart, which provides fees for attorneys according to their years of experience as well as hourly rates for law clerks and paralegals, was promptly dubbed the “Fitzpatrick Matrix” by DOJ staff.

“My goal was to develop a reliable assessment of fees charged for complex federal litigation that both plaintiffs and judges could use to evaluate fee claims,” he said.

The advantage of having a modern, objective tool to calculate attorney’s fees is clear in the order Chief Judge Howell handed down, in which she ordered a plaintiff to use the Fitzpatrick Matrix to calculate the attorneys’ fees she was owed. The plaintiff had filed a claim for fees of approximately $415,000, but according to Judge Howell’s calculations, “reasonable fees” at the hourly rates set forth in the Fitzpatrick Matrix indicated a fee award of approximately $245,000.

Attorneys representing the government wrote in a court filing that the Fitzpatrick Matrix is “accurate and reliable,” noting that since the DOJ adopted  it, “disputes about hourly rates have been minimized, both in settlement discussions and in fee petitions.”

Fitzpatrick hopes his new matrix will streamline the process for such claims in the future. “The matrix provides objective criteria for determining attorneys’ fees based on prevailing rates and the attorneys’ experience, so it should simplify the process for filing claims and require less judicial review,” he said.

While the Fitzpatrick Matrix can be adjusted upward for inflation, Fitzpatrick recommends that it be more comprehensively updated every five years. “We shouldn’t wait another 40 years to update this tool,” he said.