While the collapse of big companies like
has left many investors scowling and crying out for vengeance, it has given some lawyers a reason to smile and whistle on their way to the bank.
The lawyers in both bankruptcy proceedings recently submitted bills seeking some $70 million in fees and expenses. So far, the law firm claiming the lion's share of those fees is New York's
Weil Gotshal & Manges
, which represents both onetime New Economy highfliers.
In the Enron case alone, Weil Gotshal, a firm with 950 lawyers, has submitted a bill seeking some $26 million in fees and expenses. It has rung up another $4 million in legal fees from Global Crossing.
And it's not just lawyers who are getting rich off these mega-bankruptcies. Accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, which serves as the financial adviser to Enron, submitted a bill for nearly $7 million in fees and services. Ernst & Young, another accounting firm advising Enron's creditors, has billed for $1.7 million in fees and expenses.
For frustrated stockholders of these bankrupt giants, the hefty fees being earned by the lawyers, accountants and other professionals -- as astronomical as they may be -- really mean nothing. That's because in a bankruptcy, stockholders usually get nothing, even if a company successfully emerges from insolvency.
But for bondholders, banks, vendors and other creditors of these sinking giants it's another story, because they often do get something back at the end of the process -- even if it's only pennies on the dollar. And since federal bankruptcy law provides that legal fees -- which come out of the bankrupt company's assets -- get paid before other debts, the more the lawyers make, the less money there is for everyone else. That fact is weighing on creditors across the U.S. as investors worry about possible bankruptcies at other high-profile companies -- particularly those in the troubled telecom business, such as
"I think everyone is concerned about fees," says Andrew Rahl, a bankruptcy partner with Anderson Kill & Olick, who represents two creditors in the Enron bankruptcy. "From a creditor's standpoint, it comes right off the top."
And one thing that's punishing the bondholders and other creditors in the Enron and Global Crossing cases is that both cases are proceeding in bankruptcy courts in Manhattan, where out-of-sight legal fees are nothing new. Some legal commentators say that if the Enron case were taking place in a Texas bankruptcy court, as some creditors had wanted, the legal fees likely would be somewhat lower.
"There's a New York tax," says Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, who notes that the hourly rates and fees charged by big New York law firms often get reduced by bankruptcy judges in other states. He says that while the fees in the Enron and Global Crossing cases may be customary and reasonable for the New York legal market, that's not necessarily the case for other parts of the country.
Indeed, one big critic of the hefty legal fees in the Enron case is Texas Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Boyd. In April, Boyd persuaded U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Arthur Gonzalez, who is overseeing the Enron matter, to appoint a special committee to review all the fee requests submitted by the lawyers and other professionals. Boyd says it's too soon to say whether the committee is making a difference, because it has yet to issue a report on the fee applications from the lawyers and other professionals. Boyd says he's most concerned about making sure that there are adequate assets leftover to provide some money to Enron's employees and public pension funds that invested in Enron bonds and stock.
In fairness to the lawyers, it's worth noting that the Enron bankruptcy -- currently the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history -- is unlike any other proceeding in terms of complexity. Weil Gotshal, which has had more than 200 attorneys and 100 paralegals devote some time to the Enron matter, has about 120 lawyers working almost exclusively on the case. In court papers, the law firm says it "never before had to create such a large team and devote such a large portion of its revenue production capacity to one client."
To give some sense of the magnitude of the task at hand, Weil Gotshal says its employees have logged some 3,500 hours on "document management." In the first four months of the bankruptcy, Weil Gotshal tallied $612,425 in duplicating charges. Another 5,000 hours have been spent trying to decipher and analyze the Byzantine web of partnerships and other off balance sheet ventures that Enron used to hide billions in debt and allegedly inflate profits.
It makes you wonder how many hours it took the folks at Enron to cook up those partnerships in the first place.