Targeting the variable fee

For as long as most lawyers can remember, the billable hour has defined, powered, and shaped their law firms. It determines how lawyers work, how they sell their work, how much they earn, and how they assess and reward their employees. It breeds inefficient, overworked lawyers and frustrated, resentful clients; but it has also proved almost impossible to kill. I’ve come to believe that we haven’t been able to kill it because we’ve been hunting for the wrong beast. We’ve been calling our target the billable hour, whereas we ought to have been describing it, more accurately, as the variable fee.

The fundamental client objection to lawyers’ fees is uncertainty: the client rarely knows the final price before the work is done. Neither, in most cases, does the lawyer — either because the price is truly unpredictable or, far more likely, because the lawyer has neither the means nor the incentives nor the inclination to figure it out beforehand. The fundamental variability of legal fees powers a business model that has proven enormously profitable for lawyers: because the fee varies according to the amount of time and effort devoted to the task, the lawyer has every incentive to maximize that time and effort. Uncertainty creates risk — 100% to the client — and reward — 100% to the lawyer.

The radical change facing law firms today is the end of variable fees as law firms’ financial engine and their replacement with non-variable fees — or, in the parlance of the day, fixed fees. Evidence continues to emerge not only that fixed fees are the immediate future of how lawyers’ services are sold, but also that they’re long-term future of how lawyers’ entire businesses operate.

Fees that vary according to the lawyer production process, rising in tandem with time and effort expended, naturally give rise to inefficient workflow, reinvented wheels, maximized activity and over-accomplished tasks. Conversely, fees that are fixed in advance by the purchaser naturally give rise to proportional efforts, recycled know-how, streamlined processes and hyper-efficient workflow. The first type of law firm business model is starting a steep decline; the second is in sharp ascendancy. In the result, we’re going to witness a sea change in the culture and operations of many law firms. It’s not destiny or professional genetics that makes law firms houses of horror for both the lawyers who sweat to docket the hours and the clients who grimly pay for them — it’s the fever grip of the variable fee. The rise of the fixed-fee-driven law firm is going to demonstrate just how different and better a law firm can be.

Two examples: first, an excellent article at LegalBizDev by Steve Barrett, former CMO of Drinker Biddle, with a title that says it all: “Alternative fees demand improved project management.” It argues that any firm thinking about adopting a fixed-fee approach to sales must be prepared to overhaul its internal systems and business culture. Fixed-fee firms can’t survive massive writeoffs by lawyers who made clients promises about price that they couldn’t keep, or succeed without tracking the progress of past fixed-fee approaches and instituting technological tools to analyze them. And no firm can even contemplate fixed fees without a very clear understanding of the most important aspect of their business: what it has cost them in the past to deliver their services:

Many firms mentioned that a good understanding of cost patterns has never been developed in their firms.  One said (paraphrasing) “We should know how much an ‘XYZ financing transaction’ typically costs, since we do hundreds of them every year.”  Another (again, paraphrasing) said “I can’t believe we don’t know the cost of a typical deposition, since we must do thousands a year.”

As clients ratchet up the pressure on their lawyers to deliver results on a fixed-fee basis, firms will be obliged — forced is probably a better word — to implement these systems and gather and use this data. Just as the variable-fee model discouraged the adoption of these processes and approaches, fixed-fee models will require it.

Second example: firms’ use of associates. Pamela Woldow and James Cotterman of Altman Weil warned law firms in a recent seminar on associate compensation that they need to cut associate salaries much more deeply and accept the fact that clients will never again pay for new associates billed out by the hour. Clients would much rather rely on their own contract lawyers or on offshore professionals than on inexperienced associates; but the opportunity to train associates with this work —  and, much more, the ability to generate revenue off these associates’ billed hours — is key to law firms’ success. The solution to this impasse: fixed fees.

Woldow pointed out that corporate clients are more amenable to using first- and second-years on their matters in fixed-fee arrangements. “So if you really want to use and train your first- and second-years, then up the alternative fee arrangements,” she said.

Endless battalions of associates only make sense in a variable-fee system. When the amount of money you make is tied directly to the number of people working on a file and the amount of time they take to do it, you have every incentive to increase both. In a fixed-fee system, profitability flows in precisely the opposite direction: fewer people hired, fewer hours spent. Law firms that abandon variable-fee structures will shortly find themselves completely rethinking how many associates they hire, how much they pay them, and what tasks those associates are assigned. Under a fixed-fee system, a firm that genuinely wants to train its associates can afford to do so, not least because there’ll be fewer of them — the demand for associates will plummet, along with their cost.

As variable fees give way to fixed fees, we’re seeing a corresponding shift of burdens from the client to the lawyer: the risk of financial shortfall, the maintenance and analysis of relevant data, the obligation to control costs, the necessity of working smarter, the requirement to properly define productivity, and the responsibility to prioritize value. These changes are poised to transform lawyers’ incentives, processes, systems, and attitudes — for the better. Forget the billable hour: the future of law practice is tied to whether lawyers’ fees remain variable — or, put differently, to whether the client or the lawyer decides how much the client will pay. If I were you, I’d bet on the side that’s holding the money.



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