She-Hulk #1

Marvel has started a new run of She-Hulk, written by practicing attorney Charles Soule.  In contrast to the somewhat further ranging series written by Dan Slott, this volume promises to focus somewhat more closely on Jennifer Walters’s day job.  So has Soule’s considerable legal experience allowed him to blend interesting stories and accurate legal detail?  Let’s take a look.

(Spoilers ahead: if you haven’t checked out the first issue (which is pretty good), go buy it.)

I. Law Firms and Annual Reviews

We open with attorney Jennifer Walters headed to an annual review at the firm of Paine & Luckberg, LLP, where she works as an associate attorney.  She goes into the meeting expecting a stellar review and a bonus.  After all, she worked 2800 billable hours and did great work.  How realistic is that figure?

At a high-end New York firm, which Paine & Luckberg appears to be, a requirement of 1800-2200 billable hours is typical.  Most attorneys will do well to spend 90-95% of their time on billable work, meaning Walters actually worked something like 3080 hours, or almost 60 hours per week.  This is definitely within the realm of possibility, but it would be a serious strain for most people.  Walters has clearly done an exceptional amount of work.

Despite this, the partners tell her that she won’t be receiving a bonus at all.  Walters responds that this is ludicrous, since “at the rate you bill me out, you must have made a million bucks off me.”  Doing the math suggests that Walters’s billable rate must be about $350/hour.  This is not out of line for a mid-level associate at a New York firm.  However, the partners counter that there is also her (“very competitive”) salary and overhead.

And this is a fair point.  A general rule of thumb is that a firm’s income from associates is divided into a third for overhead (e.g. the building, support staff, $50,000 salvaged teak conference tables), a third for the associate’s salary, and a third for the partners’ profits.  This suggests that Walters is being paid somewhere around $333k per year.  That’s in the rough ballpark for a mid-level associate at a New York firm, especially when you consider what the partners say next: Walters was hired because of her connections.  The firm assumed that she would bring in a substantial amount of business from Tony Stark, Danny Rand, the Fantastic Four, etc.

This is also realistic.  Not all attorneys are hired because they are the best lawyer in the applicant pool.  Some are hired because they will be able to bring in business.  This is sometimes true even of new attorneys, but it’s very common among lateral hires (i.e. experience associates), and it’s virtually required of anyone being hired as a partner.  Law firms need clients, and promotion is often more about sales than the practice of law.  As the partners say “You were not hired to bill hours and work cases.  We have lawyers for that.”

So Walters gives the firm the finger (if you’ve read the comic you’ll know what I mean) and walks out.  She wouldn’t be the first dissatisfied attorney to walk away from a big firm.

II. The Harrow Matter

The next major development in the story is Walters’s first client as a sole practitioner, Holly Harrow.  Holly is the widow of Dr. Jonas Harrow, an inventor who was also, admittedly, a criminal.  Apparently Jonas attempted to negotiate the sale of some improvements in repulsor technology to a Stark subsidiary called Accutech.  The company declined to take him up on it but then came out with virtually identical improvements six months later.  Holly is trying to sue Stark for damages.

What’s not entirely clear is what the basis of the suit is.  Walters says something about not doing a lot of patent cases, but it’s not clear that there is a patent.  If there is a patent, then it’s a straightforward case of patent infringement.  The bit about Accutech allegedly stealing the technology is evidence of willful infringement, which would be a nice thing to prove from the plaintiff’s point of view, but it’s not necessary.

What seems more likely is that Jonas didn’t have a patent, at least not yet.  In which case the lawsuit is probably based on violation of a non-disclosure agreement, theft of trade secrets, or possibly arguing that Jonas was entitled to inventorship credit (and thus ownership) of a patent improperly filed by Accutech.  Luckily it doesn’t really matter what the specific basis of the suit is, just that Jonas had some kind of legal claim and that Holly inherited that claim when he died.

We see one brief court scene, in which Stark’s attorneys (led by the excellent character of Legal) respond to a motion for temporary injunctive relief with a mountain of motions and counterclaims.  For the most part I don’t have any trouble with this scene.  I think the judge would have heard the arguments regarding the injunction first, then allowed Stark to make its motions, but the way it’s written is more compact and better shows Stark stonewalling the plaintiff.

The motions and counterclaims that Stark makes are mostly reasonable: summary judgment, change of venue, extensions on multiple grounds, removal of Walters as counsel because of conflict of interest, and a counterclaim for tortious interference.

Summary judgment seems a little premature.  One would expect a motion to dismiss to be filed first.  Change of venue seems a little weird, since the suit was brought in the Southern District of New York, Harrow appears to live in New York, and Stark is headquartered there.  However, the failed deal was with Accutech, which is based in California, so if most of the witnesses and evidence are located there, then a transfer to California might not be out of the question.

Walters clearly does have a conflict of interest here, but it may be waivable.  In any case it’s a matter for her and her client.

The tortious interference counterclaim is odd.  It suggests that Holly or Jonas tortiously interfered with a contract or possibly with prospective business relations.  Maybe one of the Harrows convinced a client of Stark’s not to buy its improved repulsor technology because they claimed it was stolen?  We don’t see any evidence of this, but it’s possible.

In the end Walters talks to Stark, explains the situation with the help of a recording of Jonas’s pitch to Accutech, and the case settles.  As Walters states “ninety percent of lawyering is conversations.”  Inasmuch as 90%+ of civil cases settle before trial, that’s true.

III. Some Ethical Lapses

It wouldn’t be a She-Hulk story without a few ethical lapses, however.  When first meeting Holly, Walters says “I’m not going to take the case” but then promptly says “Relax, I know this guy. Well.  I’m not going to take the case because I don’t think you’ll end up in court at all. … Let me talk to him.  I’ll see what I can do.”

This seems to confuse “taking the case” with “filing a lawsuit.”  Walters is clearly acting as Holly’s attorney, even before the eventual lawsuit is filed.  I’m not sure why this exchange was written that way, but leaving a prospective client unclear on whether they are represented is a bad idea.  It’s not good for the client, and it can lead to malpractice liability.  If a prospective client comes away thinking an attorney-client relationship has been formed, but the lawyer doesn’t think so and thus doesn’t pursue the case, then the client can sue for malpractice.

After the case is resolved we see Holly approach Walters at her favorite bar.  Apparently Walters hasn’t been returning her calls (a huge no-no: always return a client’s calls or other communication).  Holly says that “We never talked about fees” and then presents Walters with a check for $150,000.  Walters initially tries to turn down the money, but Holly insists.

There are two issues here.  First the good news.  By initially refusing the money, Walters is making it clear that she is not soliciting a gift from the client, which is prohibited by New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(c)(1).  Now the bad news: by not discussing fees with her client throughout her representation, Walters has blatantly failed Rule 1.5(b):

A lawyer shall communicate to a client the scope of the representation and the basis or rate of the fee and expenses for which the client will be responsible. This information shall be communicated to the client before or within a reasonable time after commencement of the representation and shall be in writing where required by statute or court rule.

Better to have unexpectedly done the work for free than to unexpectedly present the client with a bill, but it’s still not okay.  For example, a client who incorrectly assumes that they will be charged for the attorney’s services may decide not to pursue a case as aggressively as they otherwise would.

IV. Conclusion

All told I’m very happy with this first issue.  The writing and art were good, the writer made some reasonable compromises on accuracy and detail in service of the plot, and the issue does a good job of setting up Walters’s new career as a solo attorney.  If you haven’t read it yet, check it out.

22 Responses to She-Hulk #1

  1. Its not believable that She-Hulk worked 2800 billables a year and was a member of the Fantastic four/Avengers/saved the world etc… unless she billed all that superhero time too which can’t be legal at all.

    Still a great comic though!

    • I dunno. Considering how rich Richards & Co are, he may well have agreed to pay her a retainer of some kind

      • Absolutely, but a retainer does not create billable hours. There are a couple of different kinds, but most commonly the retainer creates a fund that the attorney manages and charges the billable hours against until it is exhausted, at least that is the way I understand it.

    • Well, she is a superhero, after all. Maybe she doesn’t need much sleep. And it isn’t clear how much of the last year she spent with various superhero teams. It’s possible she really threw herself into her day job and only did a little superheroing on the side.

      But yes, certainly she couldn’t bill any superhero time, especially since she apparently wasn’t doing any legal work for them.

  2. I wondered the same thing about her billables…how did she have time to actually bill 2800 while also saving the world?

    I really loved this issue and cannot wait for the next!

  3. I’m not current. How much She-Hulking did Ms. Walters do in the last year? Maybe she took time off from active superheroing to focus on her day job.

    Didn’t she manage to take any of her clients with her when she left the firm? If not, then maybe the partners had a point.

  4. Terry Washington

    Seems ironic that only TWO Marvel heroes(She Hulk and Daredevil) are practising attorneys given how important lawyers are in American life. Now that Matt Murdock(Daredevil) has been disbarred from practising law in New York State and has moved to California will She Hulk become the super community’s legal advocate per se( Murdock has variously represented the Hulk, the Black Widow, the Fantastic Four as well as super villains like Man Bull)???

    • It’s not that big a surprise. To be a superhero, you have to have the sort of job that you can leave in an emergency or which plausibly allows you to go running off towards the KRA-KA-BOOM! downtown. Lawyers are expected to stay at their desks 120 hours a week, for the most part aren’t allowed to say “your honor, I really need to go take care of something” and disappear, and, except for PI lawyers, aren’t expected to follow the ambulances and firetrucks into the aforementioned KRA-KA-BOOM! areas. So lawyering and superheroing don’t mix well.

      I would think that NY superheroes would prefer an ordinary-human lawyer who understood the legal principles at hand, and could devote 100% to resolving the issue, over one who happened to also be a superhero. I know I would, and my superpower is only Internet commenting.

      • Oops. I thought of an exception. A superhero whose super-ability allowed them to take on only winners with big payouts might be able to earn a comfortable living taking cases on contingency while still being able to get away and do superheroics.

        On the other hand, maintaining a secret identity probably doesn’t look too good to the bar association’s C&F committee, since they had to write in an exception to allow prosecutors to work with undercover cops.

  5. I believe She-Hulk spent some time recently depowered and unable to turn into her large green form. Maybe that’s the year she put in the 2800 billable hours, and now that her powers are back, the partners are also looking ahead to her likely future billables.

    (Then again, without having read the issue; a bad review in the face of a full year of 60+ hour weeks and theoretically winning/effectively settling cases might be just the thing to get her really, really angry. And you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.)

  6. Haven’t read the comic, so I don’t know how prominent a firm Paine & Luckberg is. But if its one of the dozens of top-tier “BigLaw” firms in NYC, I’m not sure the info in section 1 is perfectly accurate. (And if its not actually a BigLaw firm, my apologies; I don’t know that much about the medium or boutique market in NYC).

    First, in terms of billable hours, even if firms advertise 1800-2200 hour requirements, that’s really the bare minimum. And there are a health number of associates that regularly bill over 2200 a year. So while 2800 truly is a lot, a non-negligble number of associates hit that mark at each firm every year (especially if they’re trying to make partner). But the explanation is close enough: 2800 usually garners you a significant bonus.

    The billable rate point is a little off. First years at these firms bill out at over $500 an hour. I think the average for a first year these days is $550. And a midlevel associate (say, a sixth year) bills out at around $750-800 an hour. So a billing rate of $350 would be surprisingly low. Perhaps the “made $1 million off of me” indicates that much of her time was written off, she is including overhead, it was billable but not payable (i.e., the firm lets you count client development or pro bono as part of your billable hours total, even though the firm doesn’t make money off of that time), or something else entirely.

    The salary is also a bit high. Almost all biglaw firms are on a lockstep scale for associate salaries:

    Y1 :$160,000
    Y2: $170,000
    Y3: $185,000
    Y4: $210,000
    Y5: $230,000
    Y6: $250,000
    Y7: $265,000
    Y8: $280,000

    A salary of over $300,000 is usually not available to associates, let alone midlevel associates. And here were the standard bonuses for this past year (sometimes people get slight bumps in their bonus based on hours and performance):

    Y1: $10,000
    Y2: $14,000
    Y3: $20,000
    Y4: $27,000
    Y5: $34,000
    Y6: $40,000
    Y7: $50,000
    Y8: $60,000

    So assuming she is, say, a sixth year associate, she would get $290k. Maybe a little more given her hours.

    Of course, as you say, this isn’t the “standard” midlevel associate. It’s freaking She-Hulk. She may be on a different scale entirely.

    • As you say we don’t know what kind of firm Paine & Luckberg is. It might be a biglaw firm, it might be a high-end boutique, it might be a smaller firm that thought that hiring She-Hulk was its ticket to the big leagues, or it might be something else entirely. So I kind of fudged the numbers a bit just to give readers a general picture.

      And while there are associates at biglaw firms that bill over 2200 hours a year, I am frankly highly suspicious of those billing practices, which include things like billing in quarter hour increments, so three 5-minute emails become 45 billable minutes in 15 minutes of real time (and that’s just a technically legal example; much more questionable practices abound as well). I assume that She-Hulk didn’t resort to that kind of thing. In any case 2800 is definitely at the extreme high end.

      The salary estimate is off the usual scale, but as the partners said she was paid a “very competitive” salary. It’s believable that it was an unusual deal. But I’ll admit I just backfigured based on the million dollar number and the usual breakdown of firm costs. I didn’t look up compensation for large New York firms, so it’s good to see some actual numbers.

    • One thing to consider is that the “million bucks” is probably informal and likely means somewhere in the low seven figures. It could also be meant as a floor: It’s probably significantly higher but it certainly isn’t lower.

  7. One thing I noticed about CBT (Comic Book Time) is that the issues tend to only cover 1 day, or (in the case of crossovers or events like Max Carnage or Fear Itself) several days, with a few exceptions like “Infinity” with go over months. Technically, Superior Spiderman or She-Hulk aren’t fighting spidermonsters on Monday and the Kree Empire all day Tuesday afternoon; unless they ARE, in which case their arms should be falling off their shoulders and the people would be calling for martial law (or SHIELD/Shiar peacekeepers) or a declaration of war against super-beings. So She-Hulk should have time for work, only to get interrupted to fight baddies for a few hours a month.
    I remember Daredevil having problems with this in earlier issues. Foggy and the judges would get annoyed when he wouldn’t make it to court.

    Now that you’re going thru the backlog of user requests, can you get to mine from last summer? Also, I have a new one for you, an old school one from the 80s X-Factor days. In X-Factor 21 Angel is declared dead because people saw him crash a plane in the previous issue. So in this issue, there’s the reading of the will and X-Factor fire Cameron Hodge, but the will says that Hodge gets the money and control of X-Factor. The X-Factor folk think that he’s rigged the will obviously plan to contest, but they get attacked and the Apocalypse saga starts from there, and X-Factor later learns the truth behind Hodge’s schemes. Of course, Hodge is dead, but if he had survived or if X-Factor would have had evidence of Hodge’s schemes before the Right attacks, could they have invalidated the will?

    • It just dawned on me that Murdock should have just told the truth about his delays to the court. This being NYC, the judges would have believed him.
      Murdock: Sorry your honor. I was unable to make it to court for the past 3 days because I was attacked repeatedly by Hand ninjas.
      Judge: That’s the third time this year! Why are they on you like white on rice?
      Murdock: Honestly, your honor? They’re crazy demon ninjas from Japan. I can’t see anything reasonable coming from that group.

      • James Pollock

        “It just dawned on me that Murdock should have just told the truth about his delays to the court.”

        Because he has an ethical duty of candor to the court?

      • “Of course, I can’t see anything unreasonable, either.”

    • Which question from last summer? The one about She-Hulk and the papparazzi was discussed here, and the one about Green Lantern was discussed here. If you sent in another one that I’ve overlooked, please let me know.

      • Master182000

        Green Lantern- Hal Jordan (Sorry, should have noted that better) was involved with a minor in a sketchy storyline many years ago.
        You can catch up here:
        http://www.cracked.com/article_18957_the-8-most-awkward-sexual-moments-in-comic-book-history_p2.html

        Story #3: Green Lantern dates a 13 year old.

      • James Pollock

        I don’t have one from last summer, but I have two now:

        1) is it possible under NY ethics rules for a superhero who is also a member of the bar to maintain a secret identity, and

        2) Does NY have any kind of mandatory identification law? (Can the police stop you and demand proof of identity, and if so, under what circumstances can it be invoked and countered.)
        Seeing as how they were doing “stop and frisk”, a policy of “stop and unmask” seems like something that would have come out during or in the aftermath of the Civil War. Given the wide range of things permitted for “officer safety”, it might even stand up to Constitutional scrutiny in a way that “stop and frisk” didn’t.
        (Although imagining the first officer who forcibly unmasks Cyclops is amusing.)

      • James Pollock

        Oops. And a third, that relates:
        Is it any kind of offense (eluding?) when, say, Spider-Man webs his way away instead of staying to answer the police’s questions about how that person wound up webbed up and hanging from a streetlight. Substitute in any masked superhero’s method for leaving the scene of the fight (except possibly Deadman… I believe is beyond the reach of Earthly law enforcement.)

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