The case began in April 2010, when the client, Adam Victor, hired the world's largest law firm, DLA Piper, to handle a bankruptcy case for Project Orange Associates, a power plant company that was providing steam to Syracuse University.
However, Victor's bill went well beyond the original estimate and the law firm eventually sued him for $675,000 -- the unpaid portion of his bill.
Victor then sued the law firm for padding his bill using a variety of shady law firm practices, such as assigning too many lawyers to do a task and assigning junior lawyers to do work, which can end up taking longer than necessary and produce inferior results, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Emails from three company attorneys -- none of which are still at the firm -- show the firm was aware it was way over budget.
"I hear we are already 200k over our estimate -- that's Team DLA Piper!" wrote Rich Eisenegger, who was one of the firm's attorneys at the time.
The practice known as "churning" is one in which law firms essentially do work that isn't really necessary and an email written by former DLA Piper attorney Christopher Thomson directly addresses that practice.
"Now Vince has random people working full time on random research projects in standard 'churn that bill, baby!' mode. That bill shall know no limits," Thomson wrote.
Thomson also wrote that, "DLA seems to love to low-ball the bills and with the number of bodies being thrown at this thing it's going to stay stupidly high and with the absurd litigation Project Orange Associates has been in for years it does have lots of wrinkles."
"Lawyers sometimes conflate their own financial interests with the interests of the client who pays the bills," Professor Ross said. "Of course, most lawyers are ethical, but the billable hour creates perverse incentives," law professor William Ross at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law told the Times.
Victor said he began his association with the firm in the 1990s, when it was smaller and he knew the lawyers handling his projects. Then, "as the firm got bigger, there were all of these lawyers who I didn't know suddenly showing up on my bills," he said.
Eisenegger and Thomson declined to comment on the case, as did the law firm, the Times said.
DLA Piper is the world's largest by number of lawyers with 4,200 attorneys in more than 30 countries on its staff, the Times said.
Revenue at the firm in 2012 came to $2.25 billion, The American Lawyer magazine reported.