Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's an alternative fee structure, not a flat fee

According to the Wall Street Journal, partners billing in the top 25% of hourly billers saw their hourly fees rise by 4.9% to an average of $873 an hour while those in the bottom quarter saw an increase of 1.3% to $204 an hour.

Among the heavy hitters was Andrew Goldman, vice chairman of the bankruptcy practice at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, LLP. Mr. Goldman's time came in at over $1,000 an hour which would appear quite pricey for someone who is filing for bankruptcy. Maybe those legal fees were just the little bit needed to push the company over the ledge.

It seems that Biglaw firms have found a way to increase their hourly rates through so-called alternative fee structures. You know what those are. For a while it was all the rage in the ABA Journal. It was sometimes referred to as value billing. We're not going to gouge you on the meter - we'll just charge a flat fee instead.

But, wait a minute, isn't that the same thing that the white-shoe boys at the State Bar of Texas are trying to prevent criminal defense lawyers from doing? I guess when the boys in the penthouse are doing it, it's called value billing but when those of us in the trenches do it, we're gouging our clients.

Our clients don't care how much time we spend working on their case. They care about resolving the case in a way that either keeps the incident off their record or in a way that allows them to get back to their normal lives.

Bar associations act in the interests of the biggest firms since they provide most of the members and most of the financing for the organization. Conversely, if you're a solo practitioner, then, to the bar association, you're worth about as much as a bucket of warm spit. And, it means you're an easy target.

No one is going to question a white-shoe firm that charges upward of $800 an hour for legal services because every other firm wants to be able to charge just as much. Likewise, no one is going to audit the billing practices of the big firms because no one else wants to go under the microscope.

So, instead of questioning just what it is that the Biglaw firms do that's worth $1,000 an hour, let's just go and mess with the men and women who do the dirty work and represent the kind of people we won't let into our reception areas. Meanwhile we'll keep billing clients a flat fee, call it value billing, and raise a ruckus over those criminal defense attorneys who ask for their fees upfront.

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