Alternative Billing - Clients Want It - Big Law Firms Hate It

Jay Shepherd over at Gruntled Employees has a great post out discussing the increasing clamor from corporate general counsels for billing alternatives to the increasingly unpopular "billable hour". Unfortunately, big law firms continue to ignore their clients' wishes in this regard and push the antiquated billable hour model. This recent survey of corporate legal expense issues from the New Jersey Law Journal found that:
Despite criticisms of the hourly billing format, its use continues to grow. In 2005, 87.1 percent of companies said they used standard or discount hourly rates, compared with 81.2 percent in 2004 and 81 percent in 2003.

While 62 percent of respondents are open to alternative fee arrangements -- including fixed, blended hourly rate, contingency and retainer -- they say that 90 percent of outside counsel resist the suggestion. (Emphasis added).

Ninety Percent? So why are big law firms resistant to change? The answer is simple. Hourly billing is often nothing short of an acceptable form of overbilling. Work on a project is open-ended, set objectives are often as vague as "win the case" and there often is no billing budget set out at all. Combine these ingredients with the incredible pressure large firms place on their associates to bill hours and the pressures partners face in earning enough to cover their gigantic overhead plus a more than attractive PPP and you have a recipe for an unbelievable amount of hourly billing.

With these kind of economics at work, its no wonder that large firms treat alternative billing as some type of odd-ball granola alternative lifestyle. "As if traditional (hourly) billing came over on the Mayflower."This problem is often no more apparent than in the employment law context. How frustrating must it be for general counsels to see case after case cost $50K, $75K, $100K or more to litigate through the summary judgment phase only to then settle for $50K or less. Ridiculous. And just as strange, some large firms still don't offer flat rates for everyday types of services such as employment handbooks or EEOC Charge responses. I agree with Jay that I don't think corporate counsels are going to allow themselves to be ignored forever on these issues. It may take more of an effort on their part to shop around for local firms that truly believe in providing real customer service and sensible billing models but eventually they will decide its worth it.

For more on alternative billing, read: