It seems like more clients are complaining about their legal bills. With hourly rates rising into record-setting territory (see "Cheaper than A-Rod: Some lawyers getting $1,000 an hour"), there's plenty to complain about. Many sophisticated clients are questioning whether the problem is hourly billing itself. (See "No-alternative billing" and "Outside counsel ignoring GCs on hourly billing.")
And how are many law firms responding?
Taking a page from the mattress sellers' handbook, some law firms are offering discounts for certain services. Employment law is a common example, since it's often seen as less critical than securities law or mergers-and-acquisitions work. (Of course, without talented employees, your securities and your acquisitions aren't worth a heck of a lot, but that's a fight for a different post.) "Six hundred bucks an hour for defending a discrimination charge? You're right, client. Tell you what I'm gonna do ...."
Thinking that they're mollifying the cost-sensitive client, the lawyer offers a discount in the form of a lower rate, written-off time, or a change in the staffing of a project. But these discounts can actually increase your legal costs. Here are five reasons why:
1. Lawyers are rational, and will work harder on more-profitable matters.
Now most lawyers are ethical, but they are not selfless saints. Instead, most lawyers are rational human beings. (Yes, believe it or not, lawyers are human beings, no matter what you've heard.) Human beings tend to respond to incentives. They tend to prioritize their actions based on the expected rewards.
Let's say a lawyer has two otherwise identical projects to work on: same level of difficulty, same amount of intellectual interestingness. The project for Client A is billed at the lawyer's usual rate of $400 an hour. The project for Client B is billed at a discounted rate of $215 an hour. If the lawyer has an hour to bill before a meeting and wants to add as much as possible to the firm's bottom line, the lawyer — a rational human being — will usually choose Client A's project.
Knowing that the undiscounted project is more rewarding, the rational human lawyer will tend to give his or her best efforts to that project. Now some lawyers will tell you that they put the same amount of effort into each project, regardless of the reward. But they're either lying to you, or they're lying to themselves. Or maybe they're just not rational human beings.
2. Lawyers are rational, and will work less hard when they know their time is worth nothing.
Sometimes it makes sense to have two (or more) lawyers working on the same task at the same time. Multiple lawyers can brainstorm together to come up with the best ideas about how to proceed on a case. Bringing another lawyer to a client meeting can help make sure that nothing gets missed.
But clients hate being billed for this. When they see a bill entry that describes two lawyers having an office conversation about a case — whether it's called analysis or strategy session or whatever — they often see it as an attempt to jack up billable hours. Knowing this, the smart rational human lawyer will cut his or her time so as to not show the doubled-up billing. But being rational and human, and knowing that he or she can't bill for that time, there will be a tendency to mail it in. No one likes to work for free.
3. In the billable-hour paradigm, there is no incentive for efficiency.
Discounting doesn't solve the biggest problem with hourly billing, which is a built-in disincentive to efficiency. If I take longer to do a job, the client pays me more. Lowering the hourly rate doesn't change that reality.
4. When a firm lowers its rates, it must make up the difference some other way.
Discounting the hourly rate has no effect on the law firm's costs, like associates' salaries and rent. Assuming the firm desires to make a profit (and why shouldn't it?), it must make up the shortfall somewhere else. That somewhere else is more hours, not-entirely-necessary work, or the use of partners to do associates' work (getting the higher discounted rate instead of the lower one).
5. For a cost-sensitive client, a firm may push work down to a lower-level associate.
Instead of using a discounted rate, a firm might lower the client's costs by giving work to a junior associate that would have otherwise been done by a partner or senior associate. This artificial staffing imperative rarely helps the client. A junior associate might take longer to get the job done, and might miss something. Then the partner has to redo the work, and then cut his or her time (see number 2 above). Work should be done by the right-level lawyer, regardless of the rate.
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These five reasons apply more to partners than to associates. At most firms, associates are more concerned with the total number of hours they bill than the rate at which they bill. (In fact, they often don't see the final bill.)
The bottom line for clients is to look at the bottom line — not just the discounted rate. You might just find that your law-firm discounts are actually costing you more.
[Note: I revised and reposted this piece on September 21 because I didn't think the original version was good enough.]