Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Will BigLaw finally catch up to the rest of us?

I read with great interest Maura O'Connor's recent blog post on re-engineering real estate law.  It was a good post for what it is, except that I had to say to myself: "Isn't it about time the large law firms caught up with the rest of us?"

(Full disclosure: I was, some ten+ years ago, an associate at the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw, the firm where Ms. O'Connor is now a partner.  [She came on board after I left, as Seyfarth did not at the time have a real estate practice in its California offices.] I had a wonderful experience there and many of my former colleagues are friends to this day.  I harbor absolutely no animosity toward BigLaw and work routinely with  them on deals.  And I respect the work they do.  I just no longer wish to bill 2000+ hours a year.)

As Maura points out correctly, BigLaw is slow to change its business model out of institutionalism, profit incentive, hourly billing rate pressure, per partner profits and other factors.  For someone like me, who does not have the pressure of having to ask partners or administrators to modify my billing rates or quote a flat fee deal, it is an entirely different animal.

And as Jay Shepherd rightly points out, you either know how to price a deal or you don't.  I think I do, although in some cases if I say so myself I am a pretty good deal, inasmuch as I see people charging double my billing rate for the same work.

What I find annoying is when that work is done poorly at those rates, regardless of the firm's size.  I have been reviewing documents and other work product the last few weeks that would have gotten me scolded if not fired a few years ago.  In addition to the usual egregious typos (I know, but lawyers are trained to loathe them), there were internal inconsistencies, wrong choices of law, provisions that were not checked against the business deal, terms left in from previous deals that did not belong here (yes, Virginia, we all re-use the same forms over and over again), documents that had to be corrected two or three times -- you name it.

I think part of the problem is that the senior associates and partners do not have the time anymore to mentor and work with the younger folks to improve their drafting and lawyering skills.  It is an art.  I am not perfect by any means at all, but I had some great mentors who took the time -- even non-billable time -- to make me a better attorney, and for that I am grateful.  These days?  There is so much pressure to make hours these days that it is hard to make the time to both mentor the young and have a life.

All the buzz words aside, here is what it really comes down to in my humble opinion, and it isn't rocket science:

1.  Clients want results.  And they will pay for results.

2.  Clients want you there.  So yes, you answer the phone or an email when least expected.

3.  Paying up to $750/hour for routine legal services is, in my opinion, insane. Period. When you are betting the company or doing the deals in the spotlight (been there, done that, by the way), it makes a LOT of sense. But for some items, as Maura correctly points out, there needs to be a different approach.  Maybe getting BigLaw to come down to my pricing level is one way.  Hiring people like me is another, as you do not sacrifice quality, or get my skill for the price of a junior associate.

4.  Know how to price a deal when asked.  A good real estate lawyer can usually give a good and fair number.

5.  Work hard when called for.  Be thorough.  Turn the product around.  Keep the client happy.

So, dear BigLaw -- welcome to our world.  We small firm folks have been "using modern business process driven methods, smart forms, predictable pricing and agile lawyering" for years now.  Nice to see you catching up to us!

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