Alternative Fees

Michael Allen

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Michael Allen is Managing Principal at Lateral Link, focusing exclusively on partner placements with Am Law 200 clients.

The stories about Biglaw over the past five years have been grim, but a closer inspection shows that despite a cacophony of daily doomsday stories from The New Republic, the Wisconsin Law Review, The Atlantic and other publications of varying quality, the future of Biglaw looks promising.

The size of modern-day, Am Law 100 firms allows them to downsize or expand as the market conditions dictate, but as a profession of perception, firms have to handle RIFs with care. Partners and clients might go next door if they doubt the capabilities of the firm. I have worked with partners before who moved simply because the perception of their firm’s stability was questioned by their clients….

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Most standard law practice management programs counsel against discounts. When given up front, they accustom clients to bargain rates, and if applied at the end of the project, they show a willingness to settle for less than what’s owed, thus setting in motion a tradition of haggling for future cases.  And now, a recent study suggests that there’s a correlation between discounts and collections problems, thus further reinforcing that discounting fees is a bad idea.

But Devil’s Advocate John Toothman, a lawyer who’s built a career on legal fee management, is appalled by advisors who diss discounts. At his blog, Civilian’s Guide to Lawyers, Toothman argues that the reason that many firms wind up giving discounts to begin with is because they never offered clients an estimate of the likely fee to begin with:

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For months, we talked to counsel about our prospects in the case. He was sanguine:

“There’s nothing to worry about here. The plaintiff put a huge number in its prayer for relief, but you can’t possibly lose that much. Plaintiff’s liability case is thin, and the damages are inflated. You’ll probably win. If you lose, you’d lose no more than $1 million on an average day. On the worst day known to man, you can’t even theoretically lose more than $5 million. I wouldn’t offer more than a couple hundred grand to settle.”

A few months before trial, we ask counsel to put some skin in the game: “It’ll be expensive to try this case, and you feel good about our prospects. We’d like you to propose an alternative fee agreement that aligns your interests with ours. We’d like to pay you less than your ordinary hourly rates in the months leading up to trial, but we’ll give you a success fee if we win. Please think about it, and let us know if you have any ideas.”

A couple of weeks pass, as counsel discusses the case with his firm’s “senior management.” When the alternative fee proposal arrives, the goalposts have miraculously moved! In the course of just two uneventful weeks, our prospects for success have changed entirely!

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It used to be that the world of corporate transactions was the sole province of Biglaw. After all, handling complex matters like mergers and acquisitions required manpower and overhead — and lots of it. Well-paid junior associates were an integral part of the process, and the costs of doing business were driven by corporate clients’ expectations of grandiose reception areas and white-glove treatment as proof of both commitment and excellence.

These days, however, technology has leveled the playing field, making it possible for boutique law firms to compete with Biglaw in ways never before possible. Many of these boutique firms, comprised of Biglaw lawyers seeking to practice law on their own terms, have sprung up in the wake of large-firm mergers and dissolutions. Creative thinking and the innovative use of technology have been the keys to their success, allowing these boutiques to reduce overhead costs and run their practices more effectively and efficiently, saving their clients time and money.

Don’t believe me? Well, look no further than Bailey Duquette, a Manhattan-based boutique law firm….

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These days, fixed fees (also known as flat fees) are all the rage in the legal profession. Long employed by solos and smalls for practice areas as diverse as estate planning, business incorporation, trademarks, bankruptcy, and criminal defense, today, flat fees are gaining traction  even with the big boys at Biglaw.

While the benefits of flat-fee billing, including cost certainty, increased efficiency, and administrative simplicity are well documented, there’s not much guidance on how lawyers can implement fixed fees in practice. As a result, many lawyers shy away from fixed-fee billing, fearing that if they charge too little, they’ll be stuck working for free if the case winds up taking more time to resolve than originally anticipated.  Meanwhile, many lawyers who experiment with fixed-fee billing claim that it doesn’t work — largely because they haven’t implemented it in a way that benefits the lawyer as well as the client.

So below are a half-dozen tips to help solo and small-firm lawyers implement fixed-fee billing without paying the price. Though not exhaustive, these suggestions may help lawyers currently contemplating fixed-fee billing get started, or convince those who’ve tried flat fees unsuccessfully to reconsider…

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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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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?

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