The Wall Street Journal seems to focus on fees being charged by large law firms to large clients. It seems almost every other week, there is an article on the subject. In today’s paper, Jennifer Smith writes about the "resetting of legal costs." Her basic premise is that clients who obtained the "upper hand" during the Great Recession" in negotiating fees with law firms are not going back to the old ways of the billable hour despite the more robust economy today.
Alternative fees have become a larger percentage of law firms’ revenue. To use alternative fees, usually meaning fixed fees, requires a trusting relationship between law firm and corporate client. Of course, alternative fees also depends on the practice area. For example, it’s easier for lawyers to quote a fixed fee in areas such as estate planning or a percentage fee in personal injury or debt collection than it is in litigation. But, even litigators are moving to alternative fees when they can work with the client as a trusted adviser … and both sides look out for the interests of the other side.
What Ms. Smith ignores, however, is the real impetus for alternative fees. It is technology. Because of advances in technology,some tasks such as document review that used to take hundreds of lawyers many hours can now be done in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the number of lawyers. Further, when lawyers charge by the hour and see their time reduced, and thus their revenue, there is an impetus to charge a fixed fee. The client gets certainty. The lawyer gets to keep a portion of the savings resulting from the technology. Both sides benefit.
This is classic in every industry where technological innovation occurs. The legal profession is now experiencing the same upheaval. And both clients and lawyers are benefiting.
Not bad enough that legal services are already expensive, but court closures resulting from budget cutbacks will make legal services of all kinds even more expensive. Alternative methods of dispute resolution will need to be engaged. This is like a bad heart, needing new arteries created from exercise. But, we don’t know yet what the "exercise" will be to enable the cost of legal services to go down. Will it be technology? Will it be alternative dispute resolution? Will it be "why can’t we all just get along?" attitude changes?
Marlo Van Oorschot talks about the cost of a divorce rising, as just one example. But, she puts it in terms that everyone can understand.
More budget cuts are going to cause court closures in the family law department this year. This means the time and cost to bring a family law case to conclusion is going to increase. Unless an alternative means of resolving a case is implemented, parties should plan on spending two years and their children’s college education funds waiting to have their day in court.
In our video (see blog post below), we talk about lawyer advertising. That commentary now must be supplemented. A twist to advertising for lawyers … at least in South Carolina … is that testimonials from clients are now permitted. Yes, there is a restriction: A disclaimer must be included to the effect that results for one client may not be duplicated in another matter.
But, the entire notion of confidentiality has now come into question. We could not disclose our client list, that violated the confidence of the client. We had to get permission to make any such disclosure. And most were reluctant to even ask clients for this permission. What now?
This will only be the first step toward the complete erosion of this rule and others like it. Yes, the client must participate. Yes, we must tell the truth. And, yes, the results in one matter do not guarantee that the same results will be achieved in a second matter.
We continue down the slippery slope of eroding those vestiges of the legal profession that are different from all other businesses.
There is much talk about how competitive the legal market has become. And this reminds me of an old Chinese proverb: “He who doesn’t turn runs far. “
In track and field events, the coach tells you to look at the tape in front of you, not who is behind you. Likewise, in running your law practice, do the best you can, focus on your skills (and improve them), on the efficiency and cost of delivering your legal services (use technology to improve your efficiency) … and, of course, on your clients and their needs (and wants). Then, you will have given it (your profession) your best shot.
John Wooden said, “The scoreboard? Championships? A sales quota? The bottom line? As goals, predictions, hopes, or dreams to be sealed up (in an envelope) and filed away, fine. But, as a day to day preoccupation they’re a waste of time, stealing attention and effort from the present and squandering it on the future. You control the former, not the latter.
“An organization – a team – that’s always looking up at the scoreboard will find a worthy opponent stealing the ball right out from under you….” Coach seldom scouted the opposition, focusing instead on what needed to be done to improve his team and prepare them to be the best they could be.
-Have a Marketing Plan -Consider the commonality between you and prospective clients. -Play the Numbers Game -The more people you can get in front of; the better the chance of someone engaging you. -Build a quality referral sources -Understand that people learn differently -Connect with other professions who share your market