The problem with value pricing

A day in the life of the corporate legal market:

A law firm submits a bill to a client. The client doesn’t like the bill because the amount is higher than expected or seems incommensurate with the value of the service. The client contacts the firm and asks for the amount to be reduced.

What does the firm do? Eight times out of ten, it reduces the amount, at least according to all the accounts I’ve heard and read. The client pushes back, and the firm gives way. This happens every day in the corporate legal world, and when it happens often enough, the nature of the transaction itself changes. The “final” bill issued by the firm actually becomes the starting point in negotiations — short and one-sided negotiations, as it turns out, because the client says, “I will pay this much,” and the firm invariably says, “Okay.”

Why doesn’t the firm push back harder? Why doesn’t it take steps to demonstrate that the bill represented good value? Because, in most cases, the firm can’t. It can’t really explain why Lawyer A spent 37 hours on the client’s project, beyond “That’s how long it takes,” and why her billable rate is $275 per hour, beyond “That’s how much she costs.” Why does it take this long? Why does she cost this much? These questions are terrifying to lawyers, because their honest answer would be: I don’t know. Lawyers have never thought much about it, because they’ve never needed to think about it. That’s not how the legal market has worked up till now.

But, notice: The client does not normally offer a substitute value definition. The client does not say, “The value of the services you provided to us is closer to $X, an amount we calculated according to the attached methodology, so send us a bill for this amount.” Most clients can’t easily assess the value of the legal services they received either, but they’re pretty sure the firm’s bill is too high and they’re very sure they can get it reduced. So they’re likelier to simply say, “Knock 12% off the amount” or “Drop all billings for lawyers called fewer than three years ago” or some such. In practical terms, neither lawyers nor clients really know the value of the lawyers’ work. They’re both groping around in the dark.

Clients undertaking a careful assessment of lawyer value.

Lawyers have always measured and sold their services according to inputs — their hourly efforts, primarily — because it’s all they’ve had to go on. Lawyers can easily measure their inputs, but they can’t really measure outputs, because legal output value is entirely situational and subject to the client’s experience and assessment. Clients have never enjoyed paying lawyers on the basis of inputs, but it’s not like they had any better ideas. “Value pricing,” attractive as it is in theory, confronts clients with some hard questions: “How much are these services really worth to me? Do I want to take the time to find out? And if I do find out, do I want to tell the lawyer?”

Consider: How much is a contract worth if it never gets so much as glanced at by either party for its entire term? (This describes a whole lot of contracts.) Based on outcome and use, the contract arguably is worth almost nothing. How much is that same contract worth if it ends up helping to clinch a transaction worth $300,000? Now, what if a $300,000 dispute is avoided because the contract was so well-drafted? Would anyone ever know the dispute was avoided? If the client somehow found out, do you think he’s going to call up the lawyer and invite her to send him a new bill to reflect this higher value?

Or how much is a last will and testament worth? Set aside for a moment the insurmountable challenge of pricing the peace of mind that comes with knowing your loved ones will receive the assets you intend for them. Suppose the testator has assets of $10,000 — how much should the client pay for that will? What if the testator wins the lottery the day after he buys the will, and his estate is suddenly worth $10,000,000 — is the drafting of the will suddenly worth more?

The most frequent response to these objections, and it’s an entirely reasonable one — I’ve been making it myself for some time — is that the lawyer and the client should have detailed conversations about their respective needs and situations, develop a degree of trust in the other’s good faith, and arrive at an amount (or a framework for determining an amount) that strikes both sides as fair in the circumstances and attentive to each side’s needs. A fine example can be found in this insightful article in Bloomberg Business of Law, which describes Ron Baker’s excellent eight-step model for setting up a value-pricing system between a law firm and a client.

I’m confident that this model is extremely effective, and for those lawyer-client relationships that have managed to put it into practice (mostly those with large volumes of repeat business, I’d imagine), it seems to be delightful. But I’m also confident that many firms and clients alike would consider it to be a significant outlay of effort and resources. It requires a lot of time, expertise and goodwill on both sides to make it happen — a degree of exertion that rarely scales and that most people, lawyers and clients alike, aren’t interested in making. (I’m not saying, to be clear, that they shouldn’t make the effort. I’m just saying, in practical terms, most won’t.)

So close to unprofitable.

This is the real reason, I think, why value pricing has been slow to make headway in the legal market: It is incredibly difficult to calculate the value of lawyers’ services. It’s a huge hassle. Many people want something easier to understand and simpler to implement, even if it’s less reflective of actual value. The billable hour is not hanging around because it’s a brilliant pricing mechanism. It’s hanging around because we haven’t come up with anything equally simple but markedly better.

And these are just the easiest examples. How much is it worth to help someone escape an abusive marriage and keep a violent ex-spouse away? How much is it worth to help someone stay out of a brutalizing federal penitentiary? How much is it worth to help someone flee certain death from religious persecution by enabling their emigration to a liberal democracy?

The value provided by lawyers in family, criminal, and refugee law is off the charts — yet they’re some of the lowest-earning lawyers in the profession, because the value of their services routinely outstrips their clients’ ability to pay it. The “value pricing” argument cuts both ways, and not always to the client’s benefit. And anyway, in none of these situations does either the client or the lawyer have the time or inclination to develop a trusting relationship that can enable fair pricing.

The real value proposition of most legal services is an enigma, one that can be solved with great effort over a sustained period of time — but my expectation is that few people will consider this kind of effort worthwhile.

So how can we better price lawyers’ services? “Input pricing” is a fiasco: the price bears no relation at all to the value of the work, and the client bears all the risk of errors and inefficiencies by the lawyer. “Value pricing,” as I’ve tried to demonstrate, is theoretically appealing but is often unworkable without a significant investment of effort in each client transaction — an effort that in itself will raise the cost of the lawyer’s services and complicate a process that most clients desperately want to streamline.

For these reasons, I’m coming to think that the likeliest pricing system to emerge for legal services will be simply “market pricing” — that is, how much the client is willing to pay the provider. I don’t pretend that this is necessarily a desirable system — it’s a highly imperfect one, and potentially regressive. But as the legal market continues to evolve and legal supply continues to diversify, I think “market pricing” will be able to deliver more fairness, value, and expedience to the pricing of legal services than we have today. More on this in a follow-up post, “The rise of market pricing.”

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Law is a Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm is available here at Law21 (in print) and at Amazon (as a Kindle e-book). “This is an exceptionally clear book, brimming with practical help, and humorous into the bargain,” says Richard Susskind, author of Tomorrow’s Lawyers. “Jordan’s assessment of the legal market should be read carefully by clients and lawyers everywhere.”



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