Alternative Fee Arrangements

An angry God is one without a line of credit.

* “[T]he one thing Windsor does not do is clearly establish a nationalized definition of marriage.” No one will be surprised when the same-sex marriage cases wind up before the Supreme Court. [National Law Journal]

* Law firm mergers continue to hum along at a record pace, but whether they’ll actually work out is another question entirely. Only time will tell if we’ll see another “spectacular flameout.” [Wall Street Journal (sub. req.)]

* “The billable hour’s day has passed.” Eighty percent of law firm leaders believe hourly billing may soon be going the way of the dodo in favor of alternative billing arrangements. [Capital Business / Washington Post]

* Despite its anti-gay policies, Trinity Western University Law has been granted approval from the Law Society of British Columbia to open its doors. And here we thought Canadians were supposed to be polite. [GlobalPost]

* If you want to take an “Law and _____” class, sign up for Law and Traumatic Brain Injuries at GW Law. Having a TBI yourself seems like a requirement for enrollment, but shockingly, it’s not. [New York Times]

* Times are so rough that God can’t even get a credit card. Instead of casting plagues upon the earth, he’s suing Equifax — though we’re sure he wouldn’t mind if the credit agency reps caught lice. [New York Post]

Growing up in Biglaw, I always thought pricing services for clients was easy. Conversations with clients went as follows: “Our rates range from X to Y, and are very competitive with our peer firms. If you have the audacity to ask for a break on these prices, we can offer you a 10% ‘courtesy discount,’ but will include language in our engagement letter allowing us to recoup that discount and more a few months into the engagement.” Of course, even in the mid-2000s (crazy that those days are nearly a decade ago), X was roughly the monthly lease payment on a well-equipped Honda Accord — for the least “experienced” lawyer in the entire firm — and Y was in the range approaching the monthly mortgage payment for a decent-sized colonial in a “pleasant” suburb. That was how things were priced, and depending on your firm, your rates were either considered cheap or expensive. But that categorization was always relative to other firms in your city, with a usually self-selected “peer group.” So there was always a “premium” (but unnecessary) firm more expensive, and on the other end of the pricing spectrum, a “discount shop” that could be sneered at for trying to undercut the market with low prices aimed at masking subpar legal ability.

When there was a surplus of demand for Biglaw’s services, the above approach was a tenable one. Once that surplus turned into a surfeit, firms needed to get a little more creative. At first, the tendency was to simply offer bigger discounts, with the “courtesy 10% off” turning into 25% off or more. Then clients started informing their firms of new “billing guidelines” where certain types of work would no longer be billable. Or where certain lawyers, such as junior associates whose time would no longer be paid for by clients, were magically transformed from revenue-producers for the firms that hired them to deadweight cost center investments in the “firm’s future.” Add in competition from other firms for a shrinking pie of business, and thinking about pricing became more rigorous. In fact, pricing expertise is one of the only Biglaw job skills with a growing rather than shrinking potential employment base….

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Andi Dorfman

* If your firm has not yet given in to the demands of corporate clients for more reasonable billing structures, please be aware that a) your firm is behind the times, and b) you better be prepared to get your white shoes scuffed. [Boston Globe]

* Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which is the fairest firm of them all? According to the 2014 Acritas Brand Index survey, Skadden is the firm on everyone’s mind — for the third year in a row. They must be doing something right. Congrats! [Am Law Daily]

* Part of this former staff attorney’s discrimination suit against Quinn Emanuel was dismissed, but as our editor, Elie Mystal, mused when he first heard of this case, it’s likely “the only color Quinn cares about is green.” [New York Law Journal]

* Trendspotting: Because fast-growing technology equals fast-growing money when it comes to the law, LeClairRyan is the first second firm in the U.S. to open up a drone practice group. [Richmond Times-Dispatch]

UPDATE (1:00 p.m.): Actually, Kramer Levin launched its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Practice Group back in December 2013, as noted by the ABA Journal and Bloomberg News.

* Bachelorette-in-waiting Andi Dorfman was granted an unpaid leave of absence from her job as an ADA to star in this summer’s edition of the reality show. We guess her boss gave her career a rose. [Daily Report]

The glory days of 2006 and 2007 may never return. They call it the “new normal” for a reason.

But things at least can get better incrementally. And this is what might be happening in the in-house world, according to two new surveys. These studies report that in-house legal departments are increasing both their hiring and their spending — which could be good news for the law firms that service them, as well as all the Biglaw attorneys who dream of making the jump to in-house.

Don’t say that we never give you happy news around these parts….

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Each year, Corporate Counsel compiles a list of the law firms that Fortune 100 companies use as outside counsel. This year, to change things up a bit, it seems like the list has been expanded to cover the entire Fortune 500. From Apple to Yahoo, and every billion-dollar company in between, these corporate clients expect nothing short of the best in terms of legal representation when dealing with high-stakes litigation and deals. If you’re looking to line your firm’s pockets, you better head to the RFP line when these companies seek lawyers.

Up until last year, only the most prominent Biglaw firms (like Cleary, Davis Polk, Cravath, and Simpson Thacher) topped the list of those that had the pleasure of doing business with the country’s biggest companies. Things changed rapidly, however, when Big Business tried to cash in on deals for legal services. The firms that were willing to cave to the pressure of providing alternative fee arrangements won in a big way, and the rest were left in the dust.

Have these prestigious firms changed their ways? Is Corporate America again willing to open its fat wallet for them? Let’s find out…

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‘Want my cookies?’

[W]hat else would [Edward Bunstine] be wanting to do, having me come to my door naked?

Ashley Holdren, a client who refused to oblige what she perceived to be her lawyer Ed Bunstine’s inappropriate suggestion for an alternative fee arrangement. Bunstine’s license to practice law was suspended for one year, six months stayed, for attempting to solicit sexual activity with a client.

(Keep reading to see some of Bunstine’s more interesting defenses to the ethics charges filed against him by the Ohio Disciplinary Counsel.)

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Jeffrey E. Stone is Co-Chair of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and Chair of the Firm’s Management Committee. In addition to his management roles, Jeffrey is a nationally recognized trial lawyer and a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He concentrates his practice in the areas of white-collar criminal defense, complex commercial litigation, internal investigations and RICO. He represents corporations, boards of directors, senior executives and other individuals in a variety of complex civil litigation and criminal prosecutions, involving a broad range of industries, including health care, manufacturing and financial services. He has tried more than 40 cases to verdict before juries in federal and state court.

Jeffrey has served as National Chairman of the Stanford Fund (responsible for all annual giving to Stanford University), as a National Trustee for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, as outside counsel to the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board, as a board member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and as president of the Jewish Family and Community Services agency. He currently serves as a member of the national Board of Governors for the American Jewish Committee.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “The ATL Interrogatories: 10 Questions with Jeffrey Stone from McDermott Will & Emery LLP”

Is the slowdown in Biglaw that we’ve seen since the Great Recession a long-term trend or just a temporary blip? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, the debate rages on. (The latest salvo: New Republic editor Noam Scheiber’s response to critics of his controversial article, The Last Days of Big Law.)

Because of its power, prestige, and profitability, Biglaw gets a big proportion of the media coverage that’s aimed at law firms. But let’s not overlook small firms and solo practitioners, who make up about 70 percent of American lawyers in private practice.

One often hears stories about small firms, especially boutiques formed by ex-Biglaw attorneys, that are thriving. The tales are inspiring; the small-firm lawyers talk about how they enjoy their practice more, have greater autonomy, and make the same or even more money than they did back in Biglaw.

But such information is anecdotal. How are small law firms doing compared to bigger firms on a broader level? A new survey has some answers….

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I’ve always marveled at lawyers who continue to represent clients when they’re not getting paid, or are too weak and fragile to engage in a serious conversation with the client over the unpaid bill(s). It happens more in the civil arena, as any halfway intelligent criminal lawyer knows you get the money up-front. Bad results with open bills is never a good way to pay the rent.

But there are those criminal lawyers who are too stupid to get the money up-front. They claim “where I practice,” you have to offer payment plans. Problem is, there is no such thing as a payment plan. What I call it is a “non-payment” plan.

I can count on one hand, well, maybe one and a half hands, the amount of times I’ve been stiffed by a client. In most cases, it was where I was waiting for the “money up-front,” and decided to do some work in the interim because I (wrongly) believed the client was good for it. The client wasn’t good for it, and I quickly withdrew from any court case or ceased doing work.

And I know, there are those out there that believe it’s pure arrogance to claim that I get paid or I don’t work, that chasing money or waiting for money that will never come is part of the practice. There are criminal defense lawyers that get paid, sorry if you don’t know any, and not getting paid is not “part of your practice,” unless you let your practice run you instead of running your practice.

So let me tell you what I hear — you probably hear it too — or say it to yourself, and how to make it stop, and stop now…

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I recently heard the managing partner of a regional law firm say that alternative fee arrangements are like teenage sex: “More of it is being talked about than is actually being done, and the little that’s being done is being done poorly.”

My corporation now uses alternative fee agreements for a large percentage of its work. All of those arrangements have worked out acceptably, and one (which I’ll discuss after the jump) has played out spectacularly. The harder question is this: How does one convince tens of thousands of readers to click through the jump (and “continue reading”) a column about alternative fee arrangements (because clicks through the jump are, after all, the relevant metric to the Above the Law gang)?

I’ve got it! Gin up a riddle, and put the question before the jump and the punch line after. What reader could resist?

So — riddle me this:

What’s the similarity between discussions about alternative fee agreements and elephantine mating?

Both take place on a high level, involve much trumpeting, . . .

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