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Category: Legal Spend

Texas Companies Spend Record Legal Fees in 2017

May 4, 2018

A recent Texas Lawbook story by Mark Curriden, “Texas Companies Paid Record Legal Fees in 2017,” reports that Texas companies paid law firms that represent them a record-setting amount of money in 2017 and an increasing percentage of those legal fees are going to national law firms that have recently opened offices in Houston, Dallas and Austin.

Exclusive new financial data collected by The Texas Lawbook shows that the 50 largest corporate law firms operating in Texas – nearly all of them with offices in Houston – employed essentially the same number of lawyers in 2017 as they did in 2016 and 2015, but those law firms are charging higher rates and making considerably more money.

Nearly two-dozen law firms in Texas, led by Houston-based Vinson & Elkins and national firms Kirkland & Ellis and Winston & Strawn, generated record high revenues last year as a result of them routinely charging corporate clients $1,000 an hour or more.

At the same time, several large Texas legacy law firms are struggling for survival or at least seek stability.  "The Texas corporate legal market is experiencing dramatic changes and these changes are expensive," said Chicago law firm consultant Kent Zimmerman. "The numbers confirm that the rich law firms are getting richer and some long-time Texas law firms are getting left behind."

Legal industry analysts say the most important statistic in The Texas Lawbook data is the fact that revenue per lawyer at 14 law firms operating in Houston now exceed $1 million a year – an amount previously achieved by the most elite and expensive national firms. Only two of the 14 firms – V&E and Baker Botts – are headquartered in Texas.

"The formula for success is simple," Zimmerman said. "The law firms that pay the most get the best lawyers. The best lawyers get the best clients and the best work. The best clients pay the highest rates and generate the best revenues. And then you can use those revenues to pay the best lawyers and the cycle starts over again."

The 50 largest legal practices in the state generated $5.65 billion in revenues from their lawyers who office in the state – a 2.4 percent increase from 2016.

But the data also shows that elite national law firms that have opened offices in Houston and Dallas during the past few years are growing considerably faster than law firms headquartered in Texas and that growth is mostly at the expense of locally based firms.

Two excellent examples are Chicago-based Kirkland & Ellis and New York-based Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.

Kirkland opened its Houston office in April 2014, but it now has more than 130 lawyers and generated an estimated $187 million in revenues in 2017, making it the 11th largest legal operation in Texas.

Simpson Thacher, which debuted in Houston in 2011, has witnessed significant growth the past three years – from $25.6 million in revenues in 2015 to $47 million in 2017, an 83.6 percent jump.

The Texas Lawbook analysis of the exclusive data involving the 50 largest corporate law firms operating in Texas shows that:

  • Nearly 40 percent of the 7,000 corporate lawyers in Texas are now employed by law firms headquartered outside of the state;
  • The Texas offices of national law firms generated $2.57 billion in 2017 – a 38 percent increase from just two years ago;
  • By contrast, lawyers for Texas-based law firms brought in $3.1 billion in revenue in 2017, which is the same amount as the previous two years; and
  • Thirty-three of the top 50 law firms by revenue generated from their Texas offices were based outside of the state – up from three of the top 50 just seven years ago.

To be sure, large Texas legacy law firms – V&E, Baker Botts, Bracewell and Locke Lord, for example – still generate billions of dollars in combined revenues, employ thousands of lawyers and still do a huge majority of the legal work for businesses in Texas. Many of them are experiencing tremendous financial success.

The Texas Lawbook obtained the financial data from interviews with law firm leaders, law partners who recently departed the firms and legal industry analysts. Only one law firm – Houston-based Susman Godfrey – refused to provide any kind of statistics to The Texas Lawbook.

The 2017 data shows that Houston-based V&E is now the largest legal operation in Texas by revenue. V&E lawyers in Austin, Dallas and Houston brought in an estimated $484 million – a 6.6 percent increase over 2016 and a 15.5 percent jump from 2015.

"We had a truly fabulous year – a record year," said V&E Chairman Mark Kelly. "Demand was up, which was good. We have 112 summer associates coming in. So, we are ramping up for another great year and for expansion."

While national law firms have raided V&E for scores of lawyers during the past seven years, legal industry analysts say that V&E has also benefited from the national invasion in one simple way: the elite national law firms with dramatically higher rates provided cover to V&E to significantly increase the rates it charges clients.

Most Texas-based law firms decided to use their lower hourly rates as a marketing tool to retain business. But V&E, according to legal consultants, took the opposite approach.

"The challenge for law firms is attracting and keeping the best legal talent," Kelly said. "For law firms with revenues less than $1 million per lawyer, it will be tough for them to compete. We want the high-end work and that means we need the top talent."

Lawyers in the Texas offices of Baker Botts had $378 million in 2017 revenues for its Texas offices.

Haynes and Boone and Jackson Walker are two Texas-based law firms that increased their lawyer head count and their revenues at their Texas offices.

Haynes and Boone increased its Texas revenues to $272 million, which is 15.3 percent higher than in 2015. Jackson Walker's revenues hit $249 million in 2017, which is a 12.6 percent jump from two years earlier.

"2017 was our best year ever," said Haynes and Boone managing partner Tim Powers. "We saw strong performances across the board and we benefited from our clients doing some really great things.

"We are cautiously optimistic about 2018," Powers said. "The tax reform law will hopefully drive significant investment in Texas and infrastructure legislation could mean good work in the next year. But a trade war could have a devastating impact."

Thirteen law firms have seen their revenues in Texas grow by 20 percent or more from 2015 to 2017. All but one – Houston-based Gray Reed – is headquartered outside the state.

Gray Reed, which has 140 lawyers in Houston and Dallas, has seen its revenues grow from $50.4 million in 2015 to $65.7 million last year – a 30.5 percent jump.

"We've had three consecutive years of record revenues," said Gray Reed managing partner J. Cary Gray, who added that the firm has no interest in growing outside of Texas or merging with another firm. "There are certain legal services that people and businesses need handled by high quality lawyers, but they don't want to pay $1,000 an hour for it. That is our sweet spot."

IBM’s Watson Could Help Reduce Outside Counsel Spend

May 19, 2017

A recent the Corporate Counsel story by Jennifer Williams-Alvarez, “IBM Says New Watson Tool Could Dramatically Reduce Outside Counsel Spend,” reports that, a new tool using International Business Machines Corp.'s Watson, notorious for defeating its human competitors on "Jeopardy" in 2011, is hard at work for in-house legal departments with the goal of significantly reducing outside counsel spend.

So far, use of "Outside Counsel Insights," or OCI, has been limited to legal departments in the financial services industry, according to Brian Kuhn, co-founder and leader of IBM Watson Legal.  But with the potential to save as much as 30 percent on annual outside counsel spend, it's no surprise that the tool has piqued the interest of some of the largest companies in that field.

The service relies on cloud-based cognitive computing system Watson to reveal billing insights to in-house legal departments, Kuhn said.  The development of OCI, which became an official offering late last quarter, stemmed from the perceived desire of legal departments to get their arms around this line item on the budget, he added.

"Outside counsel spend is really a significant concern for corporate general counsel," Kuhn said, noting that "on average, corporate law departments spend one-third to 50 percent of their annual budget on outside counsel."

To cut down on these costs, OCI looks at the amount of time a lawyer spends on a task and at line item descriptions in a budget, for instance, and creates a nearly complete automation of the invoice review process, Kuhn said.  The tool also shows how outside counsel are working, he added, which "tells you not just what lawyers did, but in a very granular way, the order in which they did things."

Together, these two features will help facilitate fixed-fee pricing, according to Kuhn, because legal departments will have a very detailed understanding of the work being done by outside counsel and can then dictate price.  What's more, Kuhn said, a future capability of OCI is to extract insights, such as how a judge ruled on certain motions and how specific lawyers perform on cross-examination, in order to "enforce appropriate legal strategy based on the outside counsel who've worked for you."

"There are other tools out there on the marketplace that offer just a pure analytics approach and they can only parse structured data," Kuhn said, explaining what makes Outside Counsel Insights unique.  "What Watson's good at is actually reading like a person, reading language ... and the ability to take narrative descriptions of legal tasks and time entries and understand what a lawyer actually intends by that in the context of a company's billing guidelines, is really how we move the needle and how we use AI.”

While OCI is currently only used in legal departments in the financial services industry, the potential savings are far from insignificant, Kuhn said.  He pointed out that in just the one industry, IBM's analysis shows that the service can provide a 22 to 30 percent savings on annual outside counsel spend after two years.  In one company with over $1 billion on annual outside counsel spend, which IBM declined to identify as the financial services company does not give its name as a reference, Kuhn said the benefits case showed close to $400 million a year in savings after two years.

There are also plans to expand use of the tool in the future to other industries that rely heavily on outside counsel, according to Kuhn.  "This is definitely not a sexy use of Watson," he noted.  "It's about creating efficiency for the lawyers and it's about massively reducing outside counsel spend."

Report: Wells Fargo Was Too Focused on Legal Spend

April 12, 2017

A recent Bloomberg Big Law Business story by Gabe Friedman, “Wells Fargo Lawyers Were Too Cost Focused, Report Says,” reports on the recent abusive sales practices of Wells Fargo.  The story reads:

After taking six months to investigate how Wells Fargo became enveloped in an abusive sales scandal, Shearman & Sterling has produced a 113-page report (pdf) that lays into the legal department for missing the big picture and focusing too much on legal cost containment.  The report was commissioned by the board of directors, which in September retained Shearman to assist an oversight committee in examining the scandal, in which bank employees created an untold number of fraudulent bank accounts in customers’ names in order to meet their sales targets.

The team of Shearman lawyers interviewed 100 people, mostly in senior management, and reviewed 35 million documents, collected from 300 custodians with FTI Consulting providing data analytics assistance, according to a note within the 113-page report.  It assesses each department in the bank, from human resources to audit, for its contribution to the scandal.  Although the law department is far from alone in the blame, the Shearman team repeatedly knocked the department under former general counsel James Strother for failing to see a pattern and recognize the seriousness in a growing number of incidents beginning in 2011 related to improper sales practices.

Right up until September 2016, “there continued to be a lack of recognition within the Law Department (as in other parts of Wells Fargo) about the significance of the number of sales integrity terminations, and the potential reputational consequences associated with that number,” the report notes.  “The Law Department’s focus was principally on quantifiable monetary costs — damages, fines, penalties, restitution.”

It adds, “Confident those costs would be relatively modest, the Law Department did not appreciate that sales integrity issues reflected a systemic breakdown in Wells Fargo’s culture and values and an ongoing failure to correct the widespread breaches of trust in the misuse of customers’ personal data and financial information.”

Former general counsel Strother, who retired last month, also comes up for serious scrutiny in the report including that the board’s risk committee felt badly misled for a presentation he was involved in.  Most notably, according to the report, in May 2015, three weeks after the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo, accusing it of setting unrealistic sales goals that created pressure on employees to resort to opening fraudulent accounts, Strother and Carrie Tolstedt, head of community banking made a presentation to the board’s Risk Committee about the matter.

The Risk Committee specifically requested the number of employees that had been fired up to that point related to improper sales practices, which numbered around 2,600 at that point, the report states.  But this number was deleted from the presentation during a pre-conference call between members of the legal department and Tolstedt’s community banking department — for reasons no one could recall, according to Shearman.

Instead, the Risk Committee heard that only 230 employees had been fired and that “the root cause was intentional employee misconduct, not systemic issues,” according to the report. It was the first time that the committee even heard that there were as many as 230 terminations, and members “felt blindsided by the disclosure,” the report says. 

And in fact, the report notes, the actual number of people who had been fired or resigned as a result of investigations was closer to 2,600 at that time.  “Multiple Board members have stated that they felt misled by the presentation; they left with the understanding that sales integrity terminations were in the range of 200-300 and were largely localized in Southern California,” the report states.  “The Board was not provided with the correct aggregated termination data until well into 2016.”

While the report does credit some members of the law department with making “commendable attempts to address the sales abuses … through work on various committees,” it faults its members for not fully considering “whether there might be a pattern of illegal conduct” rather than a series of discrete legal problems.

Already, the report is being held up as a rare inside look at how a law department failed to mitigate a problem before it grew into a full scandal that resulted in major regulatory fines and executive management changes.  “This is the Wells Fargo Investigative Report.  It is well worth reading.  The next in the chronicles from Enron to GM,” Abercrombie & Fitch’s general counsel Robert Bostrom wrote on LinkedIn on Monday.

Amar Sarwal, vice president and chief legal strategist of the Association of Corporate Counsel, agreed that the report is likely to be studied by lawyers in the future.  “Normally you’re not going to have the confidential workings [of a law department] exposed like this,” Sarwal said.

The fact that it is written by a law firm, and critiques a corporate law department for focusing too much on cost containment and not seeing the big picture marks an “intriguing turnaround” from the normal roles, he added.  It is more common to hear corporate law departments critique law firms for being too focused on the billable hour and not spending enough time learning their client’s business.

The Shearman team was lead by New York partner Stuart Baskin, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan.  Baskin previously represented J.P. Morgan’s board of directors as it dealt with the London Whale scandal, which involved a trader who accumulated an outsized position in the credit default swap market and lost $6.2 billion, raising questions about the bank’s risk management system.

Sarwal said the report puts a spotlight on the fact that all corporate lawyers, both in house and at law firms, face a tension between advising their client on a specific matter, and advising them on how to run their business.  “There’s this idea that the lawyers are the conscience of the company, but they’re not,” he added.

Instead, they operate within the hierarchy of the company and have to work with other executives to identify and solve problems.  He criticized the report for not contextualizing what else the law department had on its plate as the sales abuse problem unfolded, but nonetheless praised it as useful information.  “For GCs, this report is just another reminder that your job involves trying to change a real culture of human beings,” said Sarwal.

What are Best Practice in Outside Legal Fee Analysis?

February 20, 2017

Legal fee analysis is the comprehensive review and analysis of attorney fees and costs in an outside legal matter.  Professionals who perform outside legal fee analysis include attorney fee experts, special fee masters, bankruptcy fee examiners, fee dispute mediators, and legal bill auditors.

The following best practices measures were developed over several years with input and consensus from thought leaders from across the legal fee analysis community.  These best practice measures promote values such as ethics, independence, and professional development.  These peer review driven standards help strengthen the legal fee analysis field by ensuring integrity in the process and and reliability in the results. 

This professional code of conduct is considered the professional mainstream of legal fee analysis.  All our members (i.e. fully qualified attorney fee experts, special fee masters, bankruptcy fee examiners, fee dispute mediators, and legal bill auditors) have pledged to follow Best Practices in Outside Legal Fee Analysis:

  1. Adhere to the proper standard of reasonableness.
  2. Observe a consistent and reliable methodology.
  3. Keep updated on the latest jurisprudence of reasonable attorney fees and expenses.
  4. Keep updated on the latest scholarship on reasonable attorney fees and expenses (i.e. empirical papers, studies, surveys, and reports).
  5. Participate in professional development and CLE programs on attorney fees and legal billing topics.
  6. Do not advertise false or intentionally misleading information or offer any guarantee of outcome.
  7. Do not charge on a contingency basis (i.e. based on the results obtained).
  8. Do not accept a case or client where there is an inherent conflict of interest.
  9. Keep all fee, billing, and work product information in strict confidence.
  10. Utilize technology where possible.

Please note: You don't need to be a NALFA member to follow Best Practices in Outside Legal Fee Analysis.

Best Practices Strengthen Your Standing in Legal Fee Analysis

February 5, 2017

Legal fee analysis is the comprehensive review and analysis of attorney fees and costs by an outside party in a legal matter.  Professionals who routinely perform outside legal fee analysis include attorney fee experts, special fee masters, bankruptcy fee examiners, fee dispute mediators, and legal bill auditors.  Once known as legal auditing, a rather groundless, self-qualifying, and haphazard field, legal fee analysis has now matured and expanded into a new fully developed practice area of law, thanks in part to organization and professionalization.

Any new field of analysis, let alone one that deals with the sometimes contentious aspects of legal fees, requires some manner of professional ethics.  Emerging professions, like legal fee analysis must be grounded by some degree of qualification and some elements of generally accepted principles.  Indeed, professional standards can help ensure that professionals within a given field are qualified, competent, and ethical.

As part of our mission, NALFA has established Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis.  This professional code of conduct was developed over several years with input and consensus from thought leaders from across the profession.  These peer review driven standards strengthen the legal fee analysis profession by ensuring integrity in the process and reliability in the results.  These best practice measures promote values such as ethics, independence, and professional development.  These best practice measures represent the mainstream of legal fee analysis.

As a 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(6) organization, NALFA's statutory obligation is to improve the lines of business within the legal fee analysis profession.  Yet some old vestiges from the legal auditing era still remain.  As such, we encourage all professionals who routinely review and analyze outside legal fees or legal billing entries to read, understand, and follow Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis.  Following these best practice measures only strengthens your standing within the legal fee analysis community.  We'd also encourage clients of outside legal fee analysis to choose a professional who follows Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis.

For more on Best Practices in Legal Fee Analysis, visit http://www.thenalfa.org/Best-Practices/