Billing Rates

Is Biglaw all about the benjamins?

Is being a partner that different from being an associate? Contrary to popular belief, becoming a law firm partner is not a path to instant riches. In the early years, your compensation might not be that much higher than it was when you were an associate or counsel. Your taxes might go up, you might have to pay for your own health insurance and other benefits, and you might have to buy into the partnership. Sure, you might be able to borrow the capital contribution from a bank — but remember, you’re liable on that loan, and the bank might pursue you if it doesn’t get repaid.

Our partner readers sometimes complain about the stereotype that they’re all fat cats. As one of them recently wrote, “[Please don't write] about being admitted to partnership and instantly becoming rich…. At virtually every firm, you become a partner and then start to hope that, over the course of a career, your income will increase to ‘average partner income’ and your hours will decrease to ‘average partner hours.’ Rainmakers reach that goal quickly, but many partners — perhaps a majority in most firms — spend a lifetime waiting for, and never reaching, those goals.”

Of course, that’s the subjective experience of one reader. What does the big picture show? There’s a new report out about partner pay that contains lots of interesting information….

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Before I provide some advice on client relations that will be deemed “totally wrong” by some and “good advice” by me pretending to be anonymous, I wanted you all to know that I bought a wireless printer that allows me to send documents from my phone, wherever I am, to my printer at my office. Although I currently have no use for this feature in my law practice, and haven’t in 17 years, I hope this puts me in better stead with those of you that think I hate tech.

Now let’s talk about clients, for those of you that have some.

The core of running a practice is machines and toys clients. That you are able to do competent work for clients doesn’t matter if you are not versed in the retaining and retention of them. The retention of any client starts at the initial contact, not when they come to your coffee shop office with a check. For those of you who have practices where you never meet with clients, your initial contact with them (unless it’s them using your website as an ATM to buy documents) is even more important.

While you may be in a position where the client is only calling you, most clients are calling several lawyers. Regardless, you are now auditioning for the job. That audition begins at the very moment you first speak to the client, or the person calling for the client….

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* Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Supreme Court justice thinks that things will be back to normal at One First Street come the start of the next term, despite his colleagues’ loose lips. [National Law Journal]

* Hourly billing rates for associate are on the rise nationwide, while partner and counsel billing rates only saw modest bumps. Is Biglaw back in business, or is this just another “retention strategy”? [New York Law Journal]

* This is a really hard to believe newspaper headline: “Law firm recognizes employees have life outside of work.” Carlton Fields, what kind of gypsy voodoo magic spells are you casting? [South Florida Sun-Sentinel]

* Another day, another editorial about the “irretrievably broken” state of legal education in our country. But the ABA admins needn’t worry their oblivious little heads, because people will keep applying. [New York Times]

* And in today’s disturbing law school debtor news, Jason Bohn’s charge was upgraded to first-degree murder after a DA announced via indictment that Bohn allegedly intended to torture his victim. [New York Post]

* “Quite frankly, these are the actions of a dirty old man.” You can look, but never lick: it’s not really a good thing when a judge uses a sentence like this to describe an attorney’s alleged client relations skills. [CBS News]

* For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball fraud game. Lenny Dykstra pleaded guilty to bankruptcy fraud among a potpourri of other felony counts, and he’ll now face up to 20 years in prison. [CNN]


Tom Wallerstein

Over the last few years, the legal market has changed dramatically. We live in a buyer’s market in which the clients hold the upper hand and can demand financial concessions from their attorneys that go beyond lower hourly rates.

This good news for clients might sound like bad news for lawyers. If lawyers can’t charge as much, they likely won’t make as much. But although greater price competition might lower revenue for some firms, it surely presents an opportunity for others. Small law firms often compete with bigger firms on price, and increased client sensitivity to legal fees can be a marketing boon to firms that can undercut their competition (with the familiar caveat, of course, that the smaller firm must be able to provide the resources and quality required by the particular matter).

The changing market invites, if not demands, lawyers to offer concessions for clients. Happily, many of the concessions have relatively little impact on the firm’s bottom line, but can garner significant goodwill with clients. For example….

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Here’s a puzzle for you. What decade am I discussing in the following paragraphs?

I’m doing something a little different here. The entire text of this column appears before the jump. I’ve hidden only the citations after the jump. Ponder while you read these paragraphs when the source materials supporting these words were written:

The excessive cost of legal services is not a function of the economy that will abate as the recession finally fades. In the words of one recent report, “Don’t fool yourselves that when the recession passes things will return to normal.” That report quoted the general counsel of a major financial institution as saying, “The way we are now is the way it is now, not a temporary situation . . . . [I]n the [decade omitted] we’re going to see straight hourly billing die.”

Surveys confirm the concerns about the high cost of legal services. For example, in a [year omitted] general counsel survey conducted by [the firm you know as PriceWaterhouseCoopers], a majority of the 350 respondents agreed that “legal fees have gotten out of control and are crippling businesses,” and pressure to reduce costs was a “major theme” of the survey responses. Surveys of corporate law departments conducted by Endispute, Inc. in [two years omitted] reveal that a third of the respondents faced actual cuts in their legal budgets and that, as the size of the legal departments increased, so too did the pressure to reduce legal costs. A [year omitted] Louis Harris survey of executives and legal officers of Fortune 500 service corporations reveals cost containment as a top priority for law departments, and a survey of major corporate clients in the United Kingdom demonstrates that this is now a worldwide issue.

The pressure to move away from standard billing, based on the billable hour, is likely to increase. Indeed, [name omitted], the recently appointed general counsel of [company name omitted], is leading an intense campaign to adopt alternative billing mechanisms. Her efforts have been broadly publicized and resulted in a highly visible panel at the [year omitted] ABA meeting.

In what years did these things occur? What decade are we discussing? And who the heck was the recently appointed general counsel of what company? Those citations and more after the jump….

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You spend three years of your life going to law school. You spend over a hundred thousand dollars on getting that education. You take a difficult entrance exam to prove that you are qualified to practice law. You’d think that after all that you’d be able to convince sophisticated clients of your value as a lawyer.

You would, of course, be wrong.

The Wall Street Journal reports that over 20% of corporate clients simply refuse to pay for first- or second-year associate work on some matters.

This is a terrible indictment of the value of a legal education….

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So Lat calls me up all excited about some Biglaw Midsummer Bonus or something, which I totally ignore, and also about some hysterical dicta that Judge Kozinski wrote, which I also ignore (although it probably was pretty funny), and then he starts asking me about my law career. Which, you know, ended. And he points out that I failed to get ATL approval of my decision to close my small firm, which means technically, my column should just be called “Big Lawyers,” which is a whole other kettle of fish.

Then Lat says he knows how we can fix it. “Go on,” I say. Lat says that I can tell our readers exactly how to start pricing their legal services instead of just billing their time. “But Lat,” I plead, “I can’t give away my secrets. I have a whole new consulting firm to tell people these secrets in exchange for scads of dollars.”

Lat is quick to admonish me. “We don’t keep secrets from our readers, Jay. That’s why our readers know all about my obsession with all things Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld and why they all know that Elie is as jovial as an Ewok in real life.” Then his tone sharpened: “Plus we can always get Staci to write your column in a tenth of the time it takes you. And we can even have her use your name as a pseudonym.”

Well played, Mr. Lat, well played. So here then are the secrets to pricing your legal wares in eight easy(ish) steps.…

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I’ve always wondered what kind of salary contract lawyers make these days. Okay, not really, I kind of already know, because a lot of my friends are contract lawyers. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the wonderful world of contract lawyering, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article yesterday, by Vanessa O’Connell, on the trials and tribulations of these lawyers-for-hire.

The Journal editors decided to give the piece a cutesy title by using a play on words: “Lawyers settle… for temp jobs.” Lawyers are supposed to be settling cases, and now they’re settling for temporary jobs. Oh, that’s so very witty.

What the WSJ folks might not have realized is that when you’re an unemployed new lawyer in this kind of economy, or even if you’re an older one, you don’t really have the option of “settling.” It’s depressing, but you kind of just accept the fact that this is the hand that you’ve been dealt.

But maybe there is a bright side to this situation after all. Maybe these contract attorneys are making serious bank in these temporary positions….

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Egad! The General Counsel just announced that your target for next year will be to handle 20 percent of all outside legal spend on an alternative fee basis! What do you do?

You can’t just do flat fee agreements! What happens if you agree to pay too much, and you’ve given away your client’s money? And success-based fees are a great idea, but they’re impossible to calculate! How does anyone know at the start of a piece of (non-routine) litigation what the case is worth? Since you don’t know the value of the matter, you can’t set the target from which you’ll judge success.

What’s an in-house lawyer to do?

Calm down. Here’s a way to ease into alternative fee agreements that will put neither you nor your outside firms at risk, will educate you slowly over time, and will meet your internal objectives….

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Paul Clement and John Boehner: now out of King & Spalding's hair.

Some people, including crisis communications experts, think that King & Spalding should just shut up already about the DOMA debacle. The firm agreed to represent the House of Representatives in defending the controversial Defense of Marriage Act, and then almost immediately turned around and withdrew from the representation. This prompted the departure from the firm of star appellate litigator Paul Clement, former Solicitor General of the United States, who took the DOMA matter over to his new firm, Bancroft PLLC.

The decision to drop DOMA defense also led to the defections of King & Spalding clients, like the NRA and the state of Virginia. It generated criticism of the firm from diverse quarters — everyone from Ken Cuccinelli to the New York Times editorial board. [FN1]

Despite the advice of the communications experts (with which I personally agree), King & Spalding continues to discuss the DOMA debacle. The firm is starting to sound like a therapy patient that won’t relinquish the couch, and just wants to yap and yap and yap. Are you listening?

Let’s look at the latest revelations — and also some compensation news out of K&S….

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