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Committee passes contingency-fee bill

The Wisconsin Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor approved a bill Tuesday that would prevent law firms from receiving more than $30 million from contingency-fee contracts held with the state.

Senate Bill 19, passed out of committee on a 4-0 vote, also would make such agreements subject to the approval of the governor and require that the details of contingency-fee contracts be posted online. An amendment to the proposal adopted Tuesday could mandate that the contracts and related documents appear on the state Government Accountability Board’s website, rather than the office of the governor’s website.

A companion bill, Assembly Bill 27, was passed by the state Assembly in May. Democrats then questioned the need for the bill, saying the one large contingency-fee case most of them could remember resulted in the tobacco settlement of the late 1990s, when law firms received $75 million in contingency fees for winning a $5.9 billion settlement for the state. They asked why the same sort of restrictions should not apply to lawyers who are paid by the hour for their work for the state.

The lone Democrat present at Tuesday’s committee hearing, state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, did not express the same objections. He instead questioned a requirement, added through an amendment, calling for the submission of bids from law firms that are seeking to work for the state under contingency-fee contracts.

Risser said he feared such a provision would result in contracts simply going to the lowest bidder and not necessarily the most competent law firm.

Otherwise, Risser said he supported the bill because it will make state government more transparent.

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