There are at least two components of legal costs: Fees and expenses. When one is clearly out of line, the other is perceived to be out of line. Perception is reality.
Much has been written about the $1,000 per hour legal fee. It’s out of line, too high, much too expensive, etc. But the writers fail to assess the competitive market for those services and whether those services have some very special expertise connected with the fee that justifies the fee. If, for example, you’re in a "bet the company" situation, you want the best lawyer you can get. If you’re in a criminal trial as was OJ Simpson, you want a particular lawyer and team of lawyers. You will pay the asking price.
If you’re facing a normal contract dispute, one might consider this a commodity type of legal battle, one not requiring the best lawyer in the state; a good lawyer will suffice and the cost of his/her services will be adjusted downward accordingly. Some call this commodity pricing.
If you’re a very large bankrupt company, you need specialized professional expertise. According to Bankruptcy Court filings (attorney fees need to be approved by the judge), many lawyers in this arena are receiving $1,000 per hour. Nothing out of the ordinary here…. this is reality.
However, when these same filings show application for expense reimbursements that are out of the ordinary, then questions arise. For example, why should the bankrupt estate pay for first class airfare, for normal photocopying charges, for faxes, for overnight hotel stays at the Waldorf-Astoria, etc.? Many such expenses are considered part of a firm’s normal overhead; many such expenses can be lowered by conducting oneself in the "normal course of business," such as charging for coach airfare (not first class or business fare), hotel charges (at a Marriott, etc. rather than the Waldorf).
Any "over" charges should be at the lawyer’s expense not the expense of the estate. After all, isn’t that why the lawyer is receiving the larger per hour fees? It’s when the lawyer begins to "nickel and dime" the client or take advantage by charging more than "ordinary" expenses, the perception of over-billing extends over to the fee itself. When asked, I usually advise my clients to reduce the expense charges and their fee charges will not be questioned. It’s usually the $5.05 charge that brings the whole bill into question, not the other way around.
This issue has arisen in a number of conversations with clients.
Why would you engage a contract lawyer? For one of several reasons: (i) even out the work flow; ii) engage expertise you don’t possess at the moment; (iii) gain time to observe the quality of work of a potential hire; and (iv) determine if you have enough work in the long term to hire a permanent employee.
Once you hire a contract lawyer, whether for a designated number of hours or a specific project, do you know whether that lawyer is covered under your errors and omissions insurance policy? Often, policies are written to include all the attorneys you hire after your policy commencement date up to the end of that policy term period. Then, your premium is based for the following year on the higher number of lawyers now on staff.
But, the question remains, are you covered for what is, in essence, a part-time employee. Check with your broker; read your policy. Make sure you know the answer. Many lawyers require that their contract lawyers specifically name them on their policies with an endorsement. Of course, remember that most policies are claims-made policies, not occurrence policies. So, your policy must be written in such a way as to cover negligence asserted in the current period though the alleged negligence was committed by your contract lawyer in an earlier period and is no longer present. Ask. Be sure.
Most of us can notice when something “isn’t right” with our bodies, and we often are quick to jump to a conclusion about the cause. Yet what we perceive to be the problem, and the reality behind it, may be much different.
A urologist recently shared an example with me, saying that many people come to him to “fix the problem” of an over-active bladder at night. They typically attribute it to a “plumbing” issue that a pill or even surgery can cure. Yet this doctor suggested that, as people age, they sleep less and they’re likely to be awakened more easily by sounds that didn’t disturb them in earlier years – a dog barking, the house creaking. Once they’re awake, they decide to honor the bladder urge so they can go back to sleep. The perception is that there is a physical medical problem. The real cause is the natural aging process and the best “cure” is to accept it.
Transfer this lesson to a law practice. Most lawyers are quick to perceive a problem when there is less money coming in the door. They immediately jump to a conclusion about “the cure” – do more marketing, or raise rates. The reality is that declining revenue typically began long before as a problem with receivables. Generating new work to cover declining revenue simply isn’t the answer. The strategy is to make sure clients know they must pay their bills within 30 days. And the way to do that is specify clear collection terms in the engagement agreement. Lawyers perceive every client as valuable and hate to cut them loose; the reality is that continuing to do work for overdue clients who don’t pay shows those clients are not worth keeping.
A new study by George Washington Law School showed that realization rates (the amount of money billed that is collected) average 83.6 percent for all law firms, a figure that is a historic low. If you perceive your revenue is down, and the reality is that you only collect 80 cents on the dollar, you’re like the urologist’s patients – you won’t get many good nights of sleep.
“I’m so overwhelmed, I just don’t have time to take care of myself.” Those were the first and last words of a very short conversation I had recently with an obviously harried lawyer. Do you feel the same way? Are you in the same position? See our newsletter for suggestions on how to address this feeling.
Virtual veterinarian faces a legal test in Texas. He moved his practice online and talked to distressed pet owners by email and telephone. He charged a flat fee, generally, and recommended treatment options. The Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners suspended his license for violating the state law that prevents veterinarians from setting up a medical relationship solely by telephone or electronic means.
The AVMA claims that it is protecting the public’s interest. The vet claims that the regulation is intended to protect the brick-and-mortar veterinarian practices.
Does this sound familiar? Every Bar regulation that I’ve ever reviewed (or testified against) has been sustained on the basis of protecting the public. Where are the interests of the membership, the very professionals who pay dues to keep staff employed? These interests seem to be relegated to the back of the bus, if not ignored completely. In the legal community, this "ship" has sailed. I don’t think anyone would claim that a "virtual" law practice is illegal. It will be interesting to see how the Texas court rules in this matter.
Are contract lawyers an expense or a fee item? This issue has been litigated before and, according to my reading, has been resolved in favor of the law firm. The law firm is entitled to engage contract or temporary lawyers for one price and charge the client a higher price. One rationale for this is that the firm can engage lawyers on a short term basis, without a long term commitment, to provide the work for the client that is necessary. When that job or assignment is completed, the law firm can sever the tie with the contract lawyer and retain a lower overhead. Everyone benefits: the lawyer who otherwise would not have been employed; the law firm that can take on additional work and its resulting benefits; and the client whose goals can be met more efficiently and timely.
The issue usually arises from a complaint by an insurance carrier who is responsible for payment of legal fees under a policy of insurance or a creditors’ committee that wants a larger share of available funds and finds the law firm(s) an easy target. Currently, the Citigroup class action legal fees are being challenged by a group called the Center for Class Action Fairness.
The allegations in this case go beyond the assertion that a law firm cannot charge more than it pays for legal talent. If this were the only issue, the challengers would have no standing; this issue has been resolved and it would be a major reversal of thought for the court to rule otherwise. But, the real issues are whether the engagement agreement mentioned anything about contract lawyers and, if so, what were the terms; what risk did the law firm accept when its fee was based on a contingency (was this a novel area of law or one in which plaintiffs had not been successful before); what was the expertise needed in the matter for which contract lawyers were engaged, and what was the expertise actually engaged; and were the fees charged “reasonable” under all the circumstances.
In this case, the total fees amount to less than 17% of the class action settlement. The court will have to decide whether this was a reasonable fee overall and/or whether each component of the fee requested reasonable. The added risk for any law firm taking on this type of case is that its fee is always reviewed on Monday morning … the Monday morning quarterback always has a better perspective than does the game-day quarterback. While the large company client can protect itself by hiring the contract lawyers directly, though they could then hardly expect the law firm to oversee that portion of the work product. The client can further protect itself by objecting to paying the legal fee and litigating the fee. But, how does a law firm protect itself against the client (usually someone else speaking in the shoes of the client) so as to avoid an after-the-fact conflict?
In a recent case, the 7th Circuit appellate court said that the law firm failed to comply with its contractual notice requirement to the carrier. The law firm was required, as is true in most such contracts, to notify the carrier of a possible claim of negligence. The law firm said that notifying the carrier of every possible claim would delve it into minutiae and was unreasonable. The Court said the facts of this case suggest that any reasonable attorney should have known that a claim was likely … and therefore the firm owed a duty to the carrier to notify the carrier.
If you take the time and expend the funds to purchase insurance, you must review your contractual obligations of notice … otherwise you’re wasting your money and leaving yourself exposed to massive claims.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, the writer suggests that high priced lawyers are for sale, that is, that clients are pushing back and demanding lower fees irrespective of the stated hourly rates of their lawyers. The reporter’s perspective is skewed only to the larger law firms, “Big Law.” Small firm and sole practitioners have always walked this tight rope between client acceptance and lawyers’ fees, but this doesn’t make news.
The battle between lawyer as vendor and client as purchaser has always existed. The “battle” or adversarial conflict just never received so much publicity as it does now … And yes, some clients have become bolder as a result of the recent Depression (aka Great Recession).
Also, however, some lawyers will raise their purported rates knowing the financial officer of the corporate client will demand a discount. This way, the law firm receives the engagement, the General Counsel gets served and can protect the rights of the company, and the finance officer can assert he/she saved money for the company. A nice game.
A lawyer who was interviewed for the article suggests the real issue for all concerned: The client must believe he/she/it is receiving value for the fee paid. In other words, it’s the total cost of the legal service, not the rate per hour, that is significant. With more clients and attorneys beginning to speak this language, the real issue is coming into focus.
Customer service is appreciated whenever it occurs.
My wife and I (and I dare not forget Bandit) are spending a few days in
Tucson, AZ at the Lazydays RV Park.
Gathered with us are close to 100 other Airstream rigs, from trailers,
to motorhomes ... from new to vintage as is ours.
The amenities are outstanding and, as usual, it is the people that make
an experience memorable.
They go out of their way to be friendly and accommodating. Their brochure
says that all their employees take weekly service instruction.
Can you identify a law firm that has done that?
Once again, the issue of large law firm partners being terminated by their firms arises. In today’s Wall Street Journal, the moral of the story is that lawyers must contribute to the well-being of their firm. If they don’t, they will be terminated irrespective of whether they are a partner (equity interest) or an associate (employee). In other words, they must adhere to the formula of The Business of Law® … P = R – E, the basic formula of all business. Or said another way, lawyers are now beginning to realize the practice of law is a business, just as every other service profession (and manufacturing and distribution) is. And, the line between partner and employee is becoming narrower each day.
In a recent article in the New York Times, the reporter focused on the proper issue … the productivity of the lawyer. Age is irrelevant. There are 80-somethings who are contributing to the “bottom line” of the firm and there are 20- and 30- somethings who are not. Those who do not contribute to the bottom line can be sustained in the firm for only so long before their weight begins to cause the firm to collapse. That is one of the primary reasons for the failure of many large firms in the recent past … the failure to address management decisions that impact the operation of the firm in a business-like manner.
Being a partner is no longer the key to the magic kingdom. Partnership agreements are written in such a way that a partner can be terminated from his/her equity position without much difficulty. “What have you done for me lately?” is not an idle phrase in the world of law firms. Just as every employee in every firm/company must contribute to the well-being of the organization. It’s for this reason that lawyers are concerned about maintaining strong client relationships and not willing to share their client information with others in the firm. Cross selling is a concept that is yet to be fully embraced because of this phenomenon.
Ways in which a lawyer can contribute to the bottom line and well-being of the law firm are contained in the formula: Increase the revenue of the firm (collected billings) or decrease the expenses of your efforts relative to the revenue you bring in. In other words, if you can produce client revenue that will keep other lawyers busy, if you bill a significant number of hours (or related value billing efforts) above the average, or if you have a key client relation that is significant for the firm, you will be viewed as an asset of the firm. If your collections decline, if your time expended doing client work declines or if you utilize a disproportionate share of the firm’s resources, then you will be a drag on the performance of the firm and, at some point, terminated.
If anything is different as a result of the Great Recession for law firms, it’s the realization that P = R – E, and law firms are governed by this formula as is everyone in the commercial world.