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$75M Fee Award Draws Judicial Scrutiny in State Street Case

July 4, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Aaron Leibowitz, “$75M Fee Award in State Street Row Faces Judge’s Scrutiny,” reports that a Boston federal judge heard arguments on whether to reduce a $75 million attorney fee award for three firms that brokered a $300 million class action settlement with State Street Corp., saying the firms may have misled him about how fees are typically calculated in massive deals like this one.

In the first of up to three days of hearings, lawyers representing Labaton Sucharow LLP, Thornton Law Firm and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP said the 25% cut of the settlement that they received was reasonable under the circumstances, even in a so-called "megafund" settlement worth hundreds of millions of dollars   Some experts have suggested attorneys should receive a relatively smaller percentage of the total award when a settlement is that large.  Richard Heimann, an in-house attorney representing Lieff Cabraser, said the firms made note of those expert opinions when they first filed their fee request in 2016, and never had any intention of leading the judge astray.

"We discussed all this in the briefs," Heimann told U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf. "We were hardly hiding from your honor."  But Judge Wolf wondered why the firms had failed to mention in those briefs that a study they cited found that, in settlements ranging from $250 million to $500 million, the average fee award was 17.8%, well below the 25% they requested after their $300 million settlement.  The judge said he "basically trusted" the firms' own calculations at the time, suggesting it would have been difficult to reject their proposal given that multiple regulatory agencies had already reviewed it.

But a lot has changed since then, the judge noted. He has since vacated his original attorney fee award in the wake of a Boston Globe report that raised questions about the double-billing of attorneys' hours and a special master's investigation that found additional billing issues.

"I know much more than I knew in 2016," the judge said.  The special master, retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, held in his report that the 25% figure the firms used for attorney fees was proper, a point that his attorney emphasized again in court.  But Judge Rosen has maintained that Judge Wolf should lower the fee award by as much as to $10.6 million, including more than $4 million for hours that were allegedly double-billed and $2.3 million for so-called contract attorneys at Thornton who were paid a higher rate than he said they should have earned.

As the hearing wore into the late afternoon, attorneys for the three firms described their billing practices in detail and grappled with the varying definitions of contract attorneys versus staff attorneys.  Judge Rosen has suggested only that the billing for contract attorneys was improper, but the arguments also addressed rates charged for some staff attorneys who pored over documents in the case.

Joan Lukey of Choate Hall & Stewart LLP, representing Labaton, said the firm defines staff attorneys as those who are not on track to become partners but receive full benefits and do in-depth document work. In the State Street case, some received more than $400 an hour, she said.  "It troubles me when I hear suggestions that they should be treated as something other than what they are, which is very skilled and talented attorneys," Lukey said.

Frank Bednarz, a representative of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute — a nonprofit firm that has provided amicus guidance to Judge Wolf in the case — countered that those rates were far higher than what staff attorneys should be charged.  A more appropriate figure, he said, would be around $200 an hour.

A representative for Labaton told Law360 after the hearing that the firm hopes Judge Wolf ultimately accepts the special master's recommendations.  "Counsel for Special Master Rosen highlighted some of the factors supporting the reasonableness of the court’s original award of a 25% fee to class counsel," the firm said.  "That included the special master’s view that the underlying State Street action hinged on a complex and challenging case, with novel legal issues, at substantial risk of success, and the excellent work done by counsel in obtaining a record recovery for the class — against a highly formidable adversary."

Representatives for other parties in the case did not immediately return requests for comment after the hearing.  The underlying suit, filed in 2011, alleged that State Street swindled millions of dollars a year from its clients on their indirect foreign exchange trades over the course of a decade.

The hearing will continue with witness testimony on some of the key issues that Judge Rosen flagged in his report, including allegedly false representations made to the court by Thornton's Garrett Bradley, a former Massachusetts state representative.  Judge Rosen's attorney, William Sinnott of Barrett & Singal PC, said that there was "no legitimate basis" for Bradley to sign the fee declaration he submitted in the case, in part because the firm did not have any hourly clients.  "It was just so outrageously inaccurate," Sinnott said.

The case is Arkansas Teacher Retirement System v. State Street Corp. et al., case number 1:11-cv-10230, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Hourly Billing Still King in Corporate Legal Departments

June 25, 2019

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “Hourly Billing Still King Among In-House Departments,” reports that hourly rates are by far the most common type of fee structure used by corporate legal departments when employing law firms, according to a benchmark report released by the Association of Corporate Counsel and legal search firm Major Lindsey & Africa.  Just over two-thirds of the legal departments surveyed hire law firms using either standard hourly rates or discounted hourly rates, followed by nearly 45% that use flat fees and 31% that cap the fees, according to the Global Legal Department Benchmarking Report.

Yet while the traditional hourly rate continues to reign supreme, legal departments at companies are also increasingly varying the fee structures they use, implementing structures such as contingency fees, performance-based holdbacks and incentive or success fees, said Lee Udelsman, a partner in Major Lindsey & Africa’s in-house practice group, to Law360.  “Companies should get a lot of kudos for being creative in this area,” Udelsman said.

Legal departments sought to hire law firms most frequently for matters involving commercial law, with contracts, data privacy, commercial litigation, trademarks, and mergers and acquisitions also leading the departments to seek assistance more relatively frequently, according to the report prepared by Major Lindsey & Africa and the ACC — a global legal organization that represents more than 45,000 in-house counsel.

The report also analyzed what members of legal departments consider important and whether they think their own sectors are meeting those standards.  On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most important and satisfied, the report found that legal department initiatives and activities being aligned with the strategic priorities of clients was most important, at 4.6, followed by legal departments clearly demonstrating their value to company leaders and others, at 4.4.

Yet those who took the survey found their departments lacking for both performance attributes, as the report refers to them.  Aligning department initiatives with client priorities netted a score of 4.0, while demonstrating the departments' values to key stakeholders returned a score of 3.8, according to the report.  “Respondents realize that there’s opportunity for improvement," said Greg Richter, partner and vice president of retained search and advisory services at Major Lindsey & Africa, to Law360.

On average, lawyers comprise 68.2% of the staffs of legal departments, followed by 12% for paralegals and case managers, 8.2% for secretaries and administrative staff, and 6.8% for various nonlegal professionals, according to the report.  Legal departments went over budget in 2018, setting aside an average of $12.4 million while actually spending nearly $16.7 million, according to the report.  The average cost per hour for attorneys was $114 and for nonlawyers was $63, according to the report's findings.

"The ability to compare your law department to more than 500 others in such detail is incredibly significant for performance-focused general counsel worldwide," said Richter in a statement.  Officials at ACC and Major Lindsey & Africa both expressed surprise at the relatively-low rates of technology adoption at legal departments, with only 43.9 percent using eSignature, 27.2 percent using eBilling, and less than 42 percent using technology management for contracts or documents.

Article: Court Reduces Class Action Fee Award After Reversionary Clause

April 29, 2019

A recent New York Law Journal article by Thomas E.L. Dewey of Dewey Pegno & Kramarsky, “District Court Reduces Class Counsel’s Attorney Fee Award in Light of Reversionary Clause,” reports on a case, Grice v. Pepsi Beverages Co., where a district court reduced an attorney fee award in a class action by more than one-third based primarily on the reversionary clause in the settlement agreement.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

When parties to a class action reach a settlement agreement and include a clause that defendant will not oppose class counsel’s attorney fee award, they may expect that the unopposed fee will be approved by the court.  But a recent decision from the Southern District of New York reminds us that courts have an interest in ensuring the reasonableness of attorney fees and protecting the members of the class. Courts are particularly wary of reversionary clauses, which allow the defendant to recoup portions of the settlement fund not claimed during a claims process.

In Grice v. Pepsi Beverages Co., No. 17-CV-8853 (JPO), 2019 WL 340714 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2019), after reaching a class action settlement, class counsel sought approval of their attorney fees.  The court reduced the attorney fee award by more than one-third based primarily on the reversionary clause in the settlement agreement.

Background

In Grice, plaintiffs brought a class action against defendant Pepsi Beverages Company (Pepsi) based on Pepsi’s alleged violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Id. at *1  Plaintiffs alleged that Pepsi had violated the FCRA by procuring plaintiffs’ consumer reports for employment purposes without making the required disclosure in a stand-alone document. Id.  Less than eight months after the case was filed and before any significant discovery or motion practice, the parties engaged in a private mediation and settled the case. Id.

Under the proposed settlement, Pepsi agreed to pay approximately $1.2 million to a common fund, which would cover all payments owed under the settlement, including class member payouts, attorney fees and costs, the cost of settlement administration, and a service fee to the named class plaintiff. Id.  After deducting all costs and fees, the remaining amount in the settlement fund was $710,850, which was to be distributed to the class members submitting valid claims forms. Id.  However, only about 8 percent of the class members submitted valid claims forms. Id.  This low participation rate triggered a reversionary clause under the settlement agreement that allowed Pepsi to claw back 40 percent of the settlement fund, meaning that only $426,510 remained to be distributed among the participating class members. Id.

Class counsel then moved for an attorney fee award of $397,387. Id.  The $397,387 attorney fee figure represented one-third of the initial $1.2 million common fund. Id.  In support of their application, class counsel stated that they had worked over 450 hours at hourly rates ranging from $500-875 per hour, which resulted in a lodestar figure of $331,281. Id.

Per the terms of the settlement agreement, Pepsi agreed not to oppose the attorney fee award and no class member objected to the motion. Id.

District Court Reduces Attorney Fee Award

Even without a motion opposing class counsel’s proposed attorney fee award, Judge J. Paul Oetken performed an in-depth analysis of the reasonableness of the requested fees, and ultimately ruled that a lower amount was appropriate.

In determining the reasonableness of class counsel’s attorney fees, the court followed the three-step analysis set forth in Goldberger v. Integrated Res., 209 F.3d 43, 47 (2d Cir. 2000). Id. at *2.  The first step in the Goldberger analysis is to compare the attorney fee sought to fees in other common fund settlements of similar size and complexity. Id.  The court noted that recent studies of attorney fees in common fund settlements for similarly sized cases found the median percentage to be 26.4 percent to 30 percent of the settlement fund. Id.  The court also cited empirical evidence showing that for FCRA cases, the median fee is approximately 29 percent. Id.  In distinguishing the cases offered by class counsel, the court reasoned that those cases “differ[] materially” while the empirical studies offered a more comprehensive view. Id. at *3.

The court determined that the Grice class action was “not very complex” since it involved a “single claim” and a “single statutory provision.” Id.  Therefore, the “magnitude and complexity” of the case favored a baseline fee percentage on the lower end of the median fees found by empirical studies. Id. (citing McGreevy v. Life Alert Emergency Response, 258 F. Supp. 3d 380, 386 (S.D.N.Y. 2017)).  Furthermore, the court noted that the parties settled early in the litigation, without any extensive discovery. Id.  The court rejected class counsel’s arguments that the need to prove willfulness under the FCRA statute and the inherently complex nature of Rule 23 class actions justified a higher baseline fee percentage. Id.  As such, the court concluded that a reasonable baseline fee for this case was 27 percent. Id.

The second step in the Goldberger analysis is to consider (1) the risk of the litigation; (2) the quality of class counsel’s representation; and (3) any remaining public policy considerations to determine whether there is any basis to further adjust the baseline fee. Id.  With respect to the riskiness of litigation, the court determined that though class counsel would have had to prove willfulness in order to recover any statutory damages under the FCRA, the risks were “not so unusual as to merit a change in the reasonable baseline fee for this case.” Id. at *4 (quoting McGreevy, 258 F. Supp. 3d at 387).

Next, to analyze the quality of class counsel’s representation, the court compared the total possible recovery to that obtained in the settlement. Id.  The court noted that each class member had obtained a recovery of $51.54, which was only 5 percent of their maximum potential recovery, since the FCRA statutory damages range from $100 to $1,000. Id. (citing 15 U.S.C. §1681n(a)(1)(A)).  However, this payout was “generally in line with other FCRA class action settlement recoveries” and in light of the “factual and legal hurdles” the class would have had to overcome to obtain a favorable judgment, the court determined that the settlement was a “good result” for the class members. Id.  Despite finding that the settlement was favorable, the court ruled that it was “not so exceptional as to merit an increase in the baseline percentage, especially where the court does not have the benefits of an adversarial examination of the issues.” Id.

Finally, the court considered any other policy considerations to determine whether to adjust the baseline fee.  Significantly, the court found that the public policy consideration that “distinguish[ed] this case from other common fund cases is the reversionary nature of the settlement fund.” Id. at *5.  The court explained that the reversion clause in the settlement agreement, which allowed Pepsi to claw back 40 percent of the settlement fund since the participation rate was less than 60 percent, was the “least favored” way to distribute unclaimed common settlement funds due to its potential to create perverse incentives. Id.  The court pointed out that if class counsel’s fees were calculated based on the gross settlement amount prior to reversion, class counsel risk having an incentive to acquiesce in such reversion arrangements even if they are not in the best interest of the class. Id.  Here, the fee award requested by class counsel was calculated as one-third of the gross settlement prior to the reversion. Id.  As such, the court determined that a further reduction of the baseline percentage from 27 percent to 22 percent was appropriate, resulting in an attorney fee award of $262,300. Id.

The third step involved a lodestar “cross-check” on the reasonableness of the award. Id.  A reasonable fee under lodestar is generally “the product of a reasonable hourly rate and the reasonable number of hours required by the case.” Id. (quoting Millea v. Metro-North R.R. Co., 658 F.3d 154, 166 (2d Cir. 2011)).  Notwithstanding class counsel’s hourly rates of $500 and $875 in other states, the court determined that the “prevailing market rates in the Southern District of New York” for partners in consumer cases is $300 per hour. Id. at *5-6.  The court accepted class counsel’s representation that they had worked 450.4 hours on the case, despite their failure to “substantiate their representation.” Id. at *6.  Based on the lodestar cross-check, the court concluded that the $262,300 fee award was reasonable. Id.

Practice Tips

The Grice case provides helpful insight into the factors courts consider when faced with a class action attorney fee award motion.  Furthermore, this case reminds us that even if the class action settlement agreement includes a clause that defendant will not oppose class counsel’s attorney fee award and even if no other class member objects, the award may still be modified sua sponte by the court.  In class actions, courts typically take on a proactive role in approving settlements and awarding costs.  Here, the court reduced the proposed attorney fee award by more than one-third.

This case also shows that courts disfavor reversionary clauses and practitioners should be mindful that including such clauses may result in a lower attorney fee award.  As explained by Judge Oetken, there are other options to address a situation when some portion of a common fund goes unclaimed: (1) pro rata redistribution among the class members who did make claims; (2) escheat to the state; or (3) cy pres distribution to charitable organizations. Id. at *5.  The court described reversion as the “least favored” option due to “its potential to create perverse incentives.” Id.  In drafting settlement agreements, practitioners should consider whether including a reversion clause is in the best interests of the class and how such clauses may be perceived by courts.

Thomas E.L. Dewey is a partner at Dewey Pegno & Kramarsky.  Sarah A. Sheridan, an associate at the firm, assisted in the preparation of the article.

Report: Some Lawyers Spend 30 Percent of Workday Billing Clients

October 5, 2018

A recent Texas Lawyer story by Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, “US Lawyers Spend Only 30 Percent of Workday on Billable Hours, Report Says, reports that U.S. lawyers are still spending too little of their workday on billable hours, a year after an eye-opening report found lawyers devoted only 29 percent — 2.3 hours — of each eight-hour workday to billable hours.  This year’s Legal Trends Report, prepared by Clio, a Canadian company that provides cloud-based practice management for firms, found that the average utilization rate improved only incrementally to 30 percent, which is 2.4 hours of billable hours each workday.

Additionally, the third annual Legal Trends Report, made public, finds that lawyers invoice clients for only 1.9 hours accomplished during an eight-hour workday and collect only 1.6 hours of that time.  That’s a lot of time not spent on billable hours.  Instead of completing billable hours during the workday, the lawyers spend their time on billing and financials; marketing and business development; and firm organization and administration.  “The fact that lawyers miss out on nearly 5.6 hours of billable work each day should be a wake-up call for why efficiency is so important to law firms — it’s a critical leverage point for increasing revenues,” Clio wrote in the report.

A large majority, 84 percent, of legal professionals surveyed for the report said they equate success with increasing firm revenue.  But George Psiharis, chief operating officer for Clio, said it is surprising that few of the lawyers and other legal professionals consider factors that can increase revenue — growing a client base and billing more hours — as important factors in a firm’s success.  Only 34 percent of the legal professionals said growing the firm’s client base is a key route to success, and only 23 percent said that billing more hours would make their firm more successful.

In contrast, 80 percent of lawyers said improving efficiency of firm operations is an important factor, and 77 percent said hiring more staff would also help the firm be successful.  “That was a big surprise for us. The top two things you think about doing for driving more revenue were at the bottom of the list,” Psiharis said.

However, increasing revenue by producing more billable hours, according to the report, is not as simple as working more than eight hours a day. Clio reports that the average full-time lawyer plans to work 46.8 hours a week, but actually works 49.6 hours a week.  That adds up to an extra 3.5 weeks of unplanned work each year.  Three-quarters of lawyers report that they work outside of regular business hours, and 39 percent said that negatively affects their personal life.

The report is based on data collected from nearly 70,000 legal professionals that are Clio clients, a survey of 1,968 legal professionals, including Clio users and non-users, and a survey of 1,336 consumers.  Psiharis said most of the company’s clients work at firms ranging from solos to middle-market firms of about 200 lawyers.

The report also found that billing rates at U.S. firms hit an average of $245 an hour as of February 2018, a level that keeps pace with the rise in the cost of living from 2010 through February.  Billing rates for nonlawyers, however, have changed little since 2011.

Some practice areas are more profitable than others, because of higher realization and collection rates.  For instance, intellectual property lawyers charge an average of $327 an hour and collect $258, while lawyers who represent juvenile court clients bill an average of $87 an hour and only collect $60.

The report shows these average billing rates for lawyers in 10 large metropolitan markets: $368/hour in New York; $346 in Los Angeles; $327 in Washington, D.C.; $312 in Chicago; $305 in Atlanta; $302 in Dallas; $297 in Miami; $288 in Boston; $287 in Houston; and $269 in Philadelphia.

Why Elite Law Firms Should Raise Hourly Rates

March 5, 2018

A recent Law.com article by Hugh A. Simons, “Why Elite Law Should Raise Rates,” reports on hourly rates at elite law firms.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Elite law’s self-confidence has taken a beating. First the great recession hit, and now talk of disruption abounds. But the recession is over and disruption is far from an existential threat. It’s time for elite law to rediscover belief in the value it provides and start to raise rates as it did before the recession. Specifically, elite firms should:

Raise rates across the board.
Discount from the higher rates where necessary.
Increase rates more for partners.
Increase rates more for more distinct practices.
Exit, or leverage up, practices where realized rates (i.e. after discounting) don’t rise.

Raise rates across the board

Billing rate increases have been on a roller coaster, see Figure 1. Before the onset of the great recession, standard rates rose 7 to 8 percent annually with realized (collected) rates rising 5 to 6 percent. When the recession hit, the standard rate increase dropped to between 1 and 2 percent and, as economics would predict, realized rates actually declined. Thereafter, things have steadily improved. The market now trundles along with standard rates rising at 3 percent and realized rates at 2.5 percent, comfortably above inflation at 1.5 percent.

The fact that realized rates have gone from declining to rising at a steady rate indicates that bargaining power has shifted back from clients to law firms. The question becomes: must the new steady-state rate of increase be lower than it was before the onset of the great recession? If law firms have the bargaining power to raise standard rates an average of 3 percent, and realize a rate increase of 2.5 percent, then do they have the power to raise rates at, say, 7 percent and realize a 5 percent increase?

Three conditions must be met for increasing rates to work for law firms. The first is that growth in the value clients derive from a firm’s offerings should exceed the increase in rates. On this, the value a client derives is formally equal to the change in the risk-weighted expected value of the outcome of a client’s business venture, or legal-proceeding, that results from the law firm’s services. As the business world grows more uncertain, complex, and volatile, then services which mitigate these new risks create greater value for clients. Mitigating these emerging risks is what the leading-edge offerings of elite law firms do. Hence, these firms are at liberty to raise rates.

The second condition required for raising rates to be effective relates to competition. If Firm A raises rates and Firm B offers the same service at the pre-increase rate then, in theory, clients turn to Firm B. However, in the elite law world, firms’ offerings are not that fungible—in the highly-specialized segments where elite firms play, there simply aren’t that many viable “Firm B” providers. Even where there are other technically-capable firms, different firms offer different levels of reassurance because of clients’ varying history and comfort with the idiosyncratic perspectives of individual lawyers. A related observation is that firms tend to raise rates at comparable rates. Thus, even where there is a viable Firm B, there may be little cost saving incentive for the client to switch firms.

The third condition is evidenced by the historical data: rate increases only stick when the economy is humming along. While there is always much uncertainty about the economy, and by historical standards we are overdue a recession, today’s economic fundamentals look fairly robust. Firms should be assertive in benefitting from today’s strong economic tailwinds, emboldened by the knowledge that they’ll be buffeted by the headwinds when the economy turns.

The reason elite law firms have not been increasing rates assertively may have more to do with the emotional than with the rational. Elite law firms’ belief in the value of the services they provide took a battering through the great recession, and gets beaten down daily by dire warnings of the industry’s imminent disruption. But the recession has ended and disruption is not an existential threat to elite law firms. Nor is it an existential threat to the differentiated service lines within the portfolio of services offered by the broader group of preeminent firms. Yes, it’ll hurt the commodity-only firms and commodity service lines within other firms, and it will require changes in how all firms operate, but it won’t destroy the core of the elite law firm profit engine: big bucks for bespoke mitigation of major risks.

Discount from the higher rates where necessary

When I suggest raising rates assertively some partners respond that their clients won’t pay any increase. True, some clients won’t. But many will and many more will bear part of the increase. Thus, it’s normal for an increase in standard rates to be accompanied by more discounting and hence a decline in realization (i.e. the ratio of realized, or collected, rates to standard, or rate card, rates). This is not of itself a problem as it’s realized rates that drive a firm’s economics. The important point is that, other than in the aftermath of a recession’s onset, the effect of an increase in standard rates is a significant, albeit lower, increase in realized rates. For example, standard rates rose by 33 percent from 2007 to 2017 and, although realization declined from 89 to 82 percent, realized rates still rose by a healthy 22 percent.

It’s instructive to take a closer look at the above realization decline. As shown in Figure 2, by far the biggest component of this decline was in the ratio of worked (i.e. negotiated or agreed) rates to standard rates—5 points of the 7-percentage point fall. This reflects growth of the volume of work being executed not at standard rates but at client or matter-specific discounted rates.

The dynamics of discounts are a competition between two irrationalities. On the one hand, clients have an irrational liking for discounts. They make clients feel they’re getting a bargain and they’re easy for the legal department to explain to management. The irrationality, of course, is that the focus should be on the discounted rate not on the distance between it and some putative standard rate.

On the other hand, firms have an irrational dislike for discounting. Too many firms still think of realization rate as a measure of profitability. It can be absurdly hard to get lawyers to internalize that, in order to assess profitability accurately, you have to look at the combined effect of leverage and realization using measures such as margin per partner hour.  Indeed, higher-leverage and higher-discount work is often more profitable than lower-leverage and zero-discount work. But partners have been conditioned to think of discounts as a demerit, and partners hate demerits. This unhelpful conditioning gets reinforced by finance departments reporting on hours and realization but not on leverage or margin per partner hour.

The look at realization in Figure 2 also shows that two percentage points of decline are due to increased billing write offs. These write offs reflect quality-of-work issues and budget overruns. As quality issues are probably fairly constant, it’s reasonable to attribute this increase to more budget overruns, in turn a reflection of more work being done under fixed, capped, or other alternative fee arrangements (AFAs). But here again, lower realization doesn’t mean lower profitability—increased leverage can more than offset the realization decline. Indeed, over 70 percent of firms say AFAs are as profitable, or more profitable, than work billed at hourly rates, (data source: Altman Weil’s 2017 Law Firms in Transition report).

Increase rates more for partners

Partners are often reticent to raise their own billing rates assertively. This is a problem of itself but also has severe second-order consequences. First, it effectively sets a cap on the billing rates of counsel and senior associates as there has to be headroom between their rates and those of partners. This becomes a constraint not just on revenue but on profitability. While typical businesses have their highest markup on their highest-value offerings, this billing rate cap leads many law firms to have a lower markup (i.e. the number of times a lawyer’s billing rate exceeds their comp on a cost-per-hour basis) on senior associates and counsel than they realize on their relatively low-value junior associates. By compressing markups in this way, firms are leaving money on the table. There’s consistent market feedback that indirectly corroborates this perspective: clients object most to the billing rates of junior lawyers.

Holding back on partner billing rates also makes it harder to raise leverage. Part of the reason some partners push back on raising their own rates is they feel some of the work they do is not truly partner level and hence shouldn’t be billed at full partner-level rates. This underlying failure to delegate is a disservice to clients (by not letting the work flow to the lowest-priced lawyer capable of doing it), to associates (who are left bereft of experience), and to other partners (who contribute disproportionately to a firm’s profit pool by leveraging more). Hence, part of the logic for raising partner rates is to realize the benefits of improved leverage.

Increase rates more for more distinct practices

If you offer customers something they need that you alone can provide then you can set the price close to the value they derive from your service. If, on the other hand, you offer customers something that many others offer, then you are constrained to pricing it at the level set by others. In reality, a law firm’s various offerings fall at different points along a spectrum between these theoretical extremes. This simple observation has a pricing implication that many law firms effectively ignore: billing rates, and hence billing rate increases, should vary markedly across the range of a firm’s offerings. In particular, the billing rates for a firm’s offerings that are most distinct from those competitors can provide should be priced more aggressively than those for its less-distinct offerings.

The low billing rate growth we’ve seen of late may well be a manifestation of firms adhering to a philosophy of a single firm-wide billing rate increase and having this increase be set by the rate that is appropriate for the less-distinct offerings. The reality is that market dynamics have evolved in recent years to the point that a firm’s pricing power varies sharply across its practices; adhering to a single increase set by the less-distinct offerings is now leaving serious money on the table. If internal firm harmony requires a single rate increase, then better to raise standard rates strongly across the board and discount from these as necessary for the less-distinct offerings.

Exit, or leverage up, practices where realized rates don’t rise

There is an old adage in strategy consulting: 80 percent of strategy is deciding what not to do. The ‘what not to do’ for elite law firms is offer commodity services. How does one recognize commodity services? By definition, commodity services are offerings that many other firms can provide. By extension, commodity services are those where a firm effectively cannot set the price but must adhere to the price level set by rivals. This translates to commodity offerings being those where the realized rates (i.e. after discounting) don’t rise following a standard rate increase.

To adhere to a strategy of differentiation, firms should exit practices where realized rates can’t be increased above the rate of inflation. In some circumstances, so doing is more than the fabric of a partnership can bear. Where this is the case, an alternative that may buy some time is to operate the practice at greater leverage than the rest of the firm. So doing mitigates the effect of a commodity practice on per-partner profitability. However, it is really only a holding measure as leverage can’t be increased indefinitely and managing businesses with dramatically different fundamental strategies requires an ambidexterity that few trained business leaders, let alone lawyers, possess.

Action implications

Most people make decisions based on objective facts interpreted through a lens of emotional biases and personal predispositions. Partners are alike most people in that they employ such a lens; partners are unlike most people in that they refuse to recognize they employ such a lens. There is nothing to be gained by leaders trying to get partners to recognize what they’re doing; however, there is value in leaders shaping the lens through which partners interpret the world.

At many firms today, this lens says lawyers are of declining value and the market is stagnating. While this is true perhaps at the middle and lower tiers, this is objectively untrue for elite firms and for the differentiated practices within the broader swath of preeminent firms. This lens issue needs to be addressed first before partners can analyze robustly the case for billing rate increases. Specifically, the lens should be reshaped by restoring and bolstering partners’ confidence in the value of their offerings. To this end, firm leaders should talk to clients (many of them really value you!), share more of the positive client feedback with partners, highlight firm recognition and awards, have clients come and speak at partner meetings, host alumni roundtable discussions of the value of outside counsel, etc. The forthcoming 2017 Am Law results will probably help too: despite the pervasive gloom and doom, the top end of the market is prospering; I suspect we’ll see double-digit percent increases in profitability at most elite firms.

Having reshaped the lens, the next step is to create opportunities for partners to discuss billing rate history, profitability, and future billing rate policy. The key here is to give partners the data and let them chew on it. Don’t lecture them or tell them what to do; rather give them the parameters and let them figure it out for themselves—so doing is the first step toward adoption of the desired changes.

Partners’ deliberations should perhaps start with a review of the firm’s billing rate history and dynamics, including firm-specific versions of Figures 1 and 2 here, supplemented with the same views for individual offices, practices and key clients. It would also be useful to profile how partner rates set a cap on rates for counsel and senior associates, leading to markup compression and, perversely, a firm having the lowest markups on the time of its highest value lawyers.

Partners should then discuss some of the less-obvious dynamics around billing rates. These could include, for example: the connection between leverage and partner billing rates (particularly how low partner rates suppress leverage); the pervasive observation that leverage varies more with individual partners than with practice or client type; and, in cultural contexts where it would help, partners could debate the relationship between compensation and billing rate—the two tend to correlate at professional services firms although it’s sort of misleading as it’s not a causal relationship; rather both are separately reflective of the economic value of a partner’s practice, so proceed with caution.

The final element is for partners to discuss the process by which billing rates are set. While most partners prefer control of their own rates, many recognize that having an abstract committee set the rate allows them some plausible deniability in conversations with clients.

All this is to say it’s a new billing rate world out there. Law firm leaders would do well to buy the option of increasing billing rates assertively at year end by starting to prepare partners for such increases now.

Hugh A. Simons, Ph.D., is a former senior partner and executive committee member at The Boston Consulting Group and the former chief operating officer at Ropes & Gray.

Fee Analysis: Energy Bankruptcy Cases

January 9, 2017

A recent Texas Lawbook article, “Exclusive: Legal & Financial Advisers Feast on Bankruptcy Fees from the Oil Patch,” reports that, when times were good in the oil patch and crude was selling...

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