I was talking the other day with a partner in a large national firm. For a variety of reasons, including the nature of his practice area, his annual billings have been declining for a couple of years now, and he’s been contacted about it by some of the senior people in the firm. He’s been tempted, from time to time, to respond to their concerns by saying: “Have you ever noticed that every year, you raise my billing rates, and every year, I bill fewer hours?”
That neatly encapsulates what I think is a real and dangerous trend at a lot of the bigger law firms: week by week, rate increase by rate increase, they’re pricing themselves out of the market. The profit imperative is so strong at these firms, and the level of economic sophistication often so low, that rate increases are ordered up regardless of whether the clients want them, can afford them, or are screaming bloody murder about them. To the extent a firm thinks about its clients when raising rates, it often wagers that they have relatively limited options — they need to get the work done and they want it done by lawyers they trust — and that they aren’t prepared to make a radical and onerous move like switching firms (especially since almost all big firms operate the same and bill the same anyway). That gamble has paid off handsomely over the years, and so the firms have had little incentive to change their approach.
What’s happening now, however, is that the clients and their lawyers are teaming up and doing an end run around the firms. There’s been a barrage of reports over the past few months about lawyers abandoning big firms to set up smaller boutique practices, taking clients with them, and thriving in the result. It’s a four-step process: client tells lawyer it can’t afford her rates anymore. Lawyer tells client she doesn’t control her rates and doesn’t want to lose the client. Light bulbs appear simultaneously over their heads. And a few months later, a new small firm is born, with at least one A-list client on its roster. Continue Reading