How Do You Calculate a Fee Award to a Solo Practitioner?

There is a neat little ERISA decision just out from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In the case of James McDonald et al. v. Pension Plan of the NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund, et al., http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/ decided on Tuesday, the court addressed the question of determining an appropriate fee award under ERISA for a prevailing plaintiff who was represented by a solo practitioner. Noting that the general rule is that "[i]n calculating attorney's fee awards, district courts use the loadstar method - hours reasonably expended multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate," the court launched into an interesting discussion of how to determine for these purposes the reasonable hourly rate for a solo practitioner. The court rejected the idea that the rate should automatically be lower based on the status of the attorney as a solo practitioner or that otherwise the size of the attorney's firm alone is grounds upon which to set the rate; it is, the court noted, a factor that should go into determining the market against which the reasonable fee should be set, but no more than that. Of even more interest, the court rejected the unique act of trying to set the solo attorney's reasonable hourly fee at what would be an acceptable blended rate in the market, because while larger firms use blended rates to even out the cost to the client across the services of more experienced and less experienced attorneys, this did not actually occur in the case before the court, where the plaintiff was represented by a solo practitioner.