Lawyers: Worth Their Weight In . . . Billable Time & Contingencies?

Lawyers: Worth Their Weight In . . . Billable Time & Contingencies?


As a law firm attorney, I was keenly aware of the negative perception of self regulated billable hours and the ever increasing billable rate.  I also know that non-lawyers gasp at the idea of leaving 1/3 of any recovery money on the table in a contingency (non-billable) case, too.  I sympathize with these sentiments (and follow closely the interesting developments in our field concerning alternative fee arrangements), but, based on what I have learned since I left my firm, I will stand up for lawyers (and the price you pay for a good lawyer) from now until the end of time.  Let me explain.

I. Working With Non-Lawyer Vendors & Other Service Providers

As a small business owner, I have had the opportunity to work with many vendors and service providers, from videographers to website designers and developers to email hosts and many more.  None of these vendors charge the hourly rates of a partner or senior associate in a law firm.  And (luckily) none of these vendors have proposed to collect 1/3 of any revenue generated from their assistance.  As compared with the price of my lawyers, these vendors are actually quite reasonable.

II. You Pay For What You Get

But here is where this price comparison breaks down: you pay for what you get.  Not one of these vendors returns calls or emails promptly - even the good ones.  Not one of these vendors drops everything to assist with my business needs.  Not one of these vendors has shown me that they have the discipline and the drive to work all hours of the day or night to get something done.  Many have been unprofessional, have made careless mistakes, and have been cavalier about their work, at best.  Now, this is certainly not the end of the world.  And it's easy enough to switch vendors until you find good ones (my current web designer/developer is excellent).  But, as a lawyer, all of these amount to (or certainly should amount to) customer service 101.

III. My Point (& A Solid Reminder For All Lawyers)

My point is this: when you hire a good lawyer (one who also happens to be costly), you are likely getting exactly what you are paying for (if not, fire your lawyer immediately).  Your lawyer will be responsive, timely, professional, knowledgeable, and eager to assist you.  And there is no substitute for someone taking on your problems for you so you do not have to worry about them.

(TIP: As lawyers, and officers of the court, we should always remember that we have a decided responsibility to our clients to deliver the best service possible.  It is imperative to get back to clients within hours of any email or phone call, even if just to let the client know that you have received their communication and will get back to them with an answer shortly.  We must keep our clients apprised of any developments or progress on their cases or deals.  Clients must have an open line to their attorneys, for consultation, questions, and any other help needed.  We must act zealously, fairly, and with an eye toward achieving the best result for our client, no matter our own interests.  

As younger lawyers, there are important lessons embedded here, too.  To take an example, a colleague of mine, a law firm partner here in Chicago, asked an associate to join him in a meeting.  After the meeting, he asked the associate to send the client a recap of the meeting.  The associate responded that he did not take any notes because he was not expressly asked to, and thus would not be able to adequately recap the meeting.  In other words, he had done nothing but sit there - for $200+ an hour.  I hope this alarms you.  We must always be mindful, no matter our level of expertise, that clients are paying for us to do work on their behalf, and we must, at the end of the day, be able to record our billable time with honesty, integrity, and value.)

IV. In Short

When it comes to your lawyer, or any service provider, consider what you are getting in exchange for what you are being billed - you may not be overpaying after all.  (In fact, there have been times where I would have agreed to pay a designer or developer or whomever else upwards of $600 an hour just to make my work a priority or deliver on my expectations.)  In this regard, a good lawyer very well may be worth his or her weight in billable hours or contingency fees 

Desiree Moore is the President and founder of Greenhorn Legal, LLC. Greenhorn Legal offers intensive practical skills training programs for law students and new lawyers as they transition from law school into their legal practices.  Ms. Moore is also an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and was an associate at the law firm of K&L Gates. She can be found on Twitter at @greenhornlegal.