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Category: Alternative Fees

Article: When Are Outside Fee Experts Required to Prove Attorney Fees?

April 21, 2021

A recent Daily Business Review article by Jonathan Mann, "Appellate Brief: When Expert Testimony is Required to Obtain an Award of Attorney Fees," reports on whether a party seeking an award of attorney fees needs an expert witness to testify in support of the reasonableness of fees requested in Florida.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Whether a party seeking an award of attorney fees needs an expert witness to testify in support of the reasonableness of the fees requested has been the subject of much discussion and many written legal opinions in Florida.  The answer depends on the type of case, against whom fees are being sought, and in what area of the state the case is proceeding.

The general rule is that a party seeking an award of attorney fees from the other party to litigation must introduce the testimony of an expert witness in support of the request.  Family law proceedings under Chapter 61 are a notable exception, as the statute expressly provides that expert testimony of a fee witness is unnecessary to seek an award of attorney’s fees from the other side in proceedings under that chapter.  The general rule requiring expert testimony appears to hold true when seeking fees in the same proceeding pursuant to a charging lien.  See, Roshkind v. Machiela, 45 So.3d 480 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010).  But things are more uncertain when an attorney seeks unpaid attorney fees from the attorney’s own client or former client.

The Fourth DCA held in Valentin Rodriguez v. Altomare, 261 So. 3d 590 (Fla. 4th DCA 2018) that expert fee witness testimony was unnecessary in a separate breach of contract suit by an attorney against his former client.  The attorney sued his former client for unpaid legal fees under a flat fee contract in a criminal case.  Notably, the case involved a flat fee arrangement.  The former client did not dispute the amount of the fee, and had even acknowledged the debt by executing a promissory note for the unpaid balance.

The Fourth DCA recently reaffirmed and clarified its position on the issue of the necessity of expert fee witness testimony in separate breach of contract actions in Ramblewood East Condominium Association v. Kaye Bender Rembaum, 294 So. 3d 923 (Fla. 4th DCA 2020).  Robin Bresky assisted in presenting oral argument for the appellee before the Fourth DCA in the Ramblewood appeal, and the appellee successfully defended the award of attorney fees.  In that case, the Fourth DCA relied upon Rodriguez in affirming an award of attorney fees for a law firm that filed a separate breach of contract action to collect unpaid attorney fees even though the firm did not present expert testimony as to the reasonableness of fees.  The fee agreement at issue in Ramblewood was not a flat fee like the one in Rodriguez.

The Third DCA also recently followed Rodriguez in Law Offices of Granoff & Kessler v. Glass, 305 So. 3d 345 (Fla. 3d DCA 2020). In Granoff, a law firm sued its former client for unpaid attorney fees incurred in a dissolution of marriage proceeding by bringing a separate breach of contract claim against the former client under the attorney-client fee agreement.  The Third DCA held that expert fee witness testimony is not necessary when an attorney files a separate breach of contract suit as long as the attorney testifies regarding the fees and submits the billing invoices into evidence.  The court noted that in such a case, the fees are sought from a former client who agreed to pay them rather than an adverse party who did not.

In so ruling, the Third DCA certified conflict with Snow v. Harlan Bakeries, 932 So. 2d 411 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) and the case went to the Florida Supreme Court.  The Granoff & Kessler case was fully briefed and awaiting disposition in the Florida Supreme Court until March 26.  However, on that date the Supreme Court entered an order determining that it should decline to exercise jurisdiction.

As a result, the apparent split that currently exists among Florida DCAs on the issue of whether an attorney pursuing fees from a former client in a separate proceeding must introduce the testimony of an expert fee witness remains.  Thus, whether a party seeking attorney fees requires diligent attention to the facts and circumstances of the particular situation.  For now, it appears that expert fee witness testimony is unnecessary to pursue attorney fees in a separate action in the circuit courts within the Third and Fourth Districts, whereas the opposite is true in the Second and Fifth Districts.  The answer is unclear in the First District, but the cautious practitioner would always be wise to introduce such testimony in support of the request for attorney fees to avoid any possibility of a challenge on such grounds on appeal.

Jonathan Mann is a senior associate at Bresky Law.  Prior to joining the firm, Mann worked as a judicial staff attorney to Judge George A. Shahood at Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal.  In this role, Mann managed civil and criminal appeals and gained extensive experience in the appellate process and procedural rules.

Under Economic Pressure, More Firms Sue Clients for Unpaid Fees

April 13, 2021

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Justin Henry, “Under Economic Pressure, Large Firms May Increasing Sue Clients for Nonpayment,” reports that economic pressures accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many law firms into difficult conversations with clients, as they aim to balance flexibility during an economic downturn with their own budgetary constraints. In some instances, the challenge is leading to lawsuits.  Over the last 12 months since the onset of the pandemic, Am Law 200 firms including Blank Rome, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Armstrong Teasdale and Baker McKenzie, among others, have sued clients for allegedly unpaid legal fees, court filings show.

Attorneys who represent law firms in collections disputes say firms are wary to sue clients over unpaid fees because it potentially leaves them vulnerable to counterclaims of legal malpractice.  They say law firms see litigation as a last resort, especially during an economic downturn when flexibility in collections can be key to maintaining solid client relationships.  But law firms are also on alert for exploitation by clients citing the economic tribulation of the last 12 months as a pretext to avoid costs, attorneys say.  Industry leaders also said a large portion of these claims by law firms don’t show up on the public record because the services contracts include an arbitration provision for settling fee disputes.

“As firms become billion-dollar-plus big businesses, they tend to be run more like big billion-dollar-plus businesses,” said Ronald Minkoff, a litigation group partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, who represents law firms in fee collections disputes.  “If they feel that a client is taking advantage of them, they’re much more willing to call the client to account for that.”

Last summer, according to court filings, Buchanan found itself with $2.7 million in outstanding legal fees from Best Medical International, a medical device company that retained Buchanan for patent litigation against alleged infringers in which Buchanan was victorious.  The fee is now the subject of ongoing litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Our cash flow difficulties do indeed continue to make it difficult to pay the Buchanan legal bill which now approaches $2.8 million,” said James Brady, Best Medical’s in-house counsel, in a May 11, 2020, email to Buchanan CEO Joe Dougherty, that was included in court documents.  “We will do everything we can to achieve a reasonable settlement with Varian and Elekta so your firm can be fairly compensated.  We appreciate your willingness to continue the forbearance on any collection efforts and we are hopeful a successful plan will be forthcoming soon.”

Court documents also included a May 12 email reply, in which Dougherty told Brady the firm’s board is “growing impatient with my forbearance on initiating collection efforts.”  Dougherty added Buchanan “is not immune from cash flow challenges these days, and the $2.7 million owed is very significant to us.”  Buchanan has annual revenue around $300 million, according to the most recent ALM data for the firm.

Best Medical took the firm to court in July, alleging it had breached fiduciary duties by failing to provide monthly estimates as promised in their initial contract, which the firm denies.  Court records show Best Medical failed to pay monthly payments from Sept. 23, 2019, through Feb. 11, 2020, citing the opposing parties’ request to stay proceedings and postponing a potential settlement.  Buchanan declined to comment for this story.

Armstrong Teasdale on March 17 filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against former clients, who the firm had represented in multiple lawsuits and in various arbitrations before the American Arbitration Association from October 2018 to October 2020. The suit alleges that the clients owe more than $3.5 million to the firm, plus a 9% annual interest rate.  That amount is equal to 2.3% of the firm’s 2020 revenue of $149.2 million.

In its complaint, Armstrong states the former clients paid legal bills invoiced through July 2019, but alleges that legal bills remain unpaid from then until September 2020, when the clients informed Armstrong they were retaining new counsel.  Armstrong Teasdale declined to comment for this story.  Blank Rome in a Jan. 8 complaint, filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, claimed former clients Joseph Gurwicz and GR Ventures of New Jersey have outstanding legal fees for the firm’s services connected to preparing and filing a provisional patent application.

As of the date of filing, more than 100 invoices dated from Nov. 8, 2017, through Nov. 6, 2019, remain either partially or fully unpaid, the firm alleges.  Of the $485,563 in legal costs incurred by Blank Rome on behalf of their client, the firm claims $187,860.85 have yet to be paid in full.  In addition, Blank Rome said it’s owed an annual accrued interest rate of 6%, bumping the total amount of the firm’s claim to just over $211,000.

Last week the firm opted to withdraw from the case. Blank Rome declined to comment for this story.  In another case, related to a five-figure fee, Baker McKenzie sued former client Catherine Brentzel in June 2020 in D.C. Superior Court.  Last month, the court entered judgment in the amount of $77,325.88 in the law firm’s favor, court records show.

Minkoff said there had been a stigma attached to firms using the court to induce payments from clients, because it might signal poor client relationship management on the part of the law firm.  But that has taken a back seat in recent years due to revenue pressures and stagnant demand, which have been ramped up by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“There were businesses and law firms who were affected by the pandemic in a negative way, and that increased the pressure in these situations,” Minkoff said.  “The Big Law numbers were not usually affected, particularly at the top levels, but the pressures that existed before the pandemic existed during the pandemic and will exist after the pandemic.”  Minkoff said the industry may be in for a rise in the volume of fee collections disputes between firms and their clients, mirroring the uptick that occurred in the mid-2010s.

“Partners are under pressure to bring in as much money as they can, and that has led to more aggressive behavior in terms of fee collections and those kinds of disputes,” Minkoff said.  He added that the rise in fee collections litigation coincides with firm protectionism in partnership agreements.

Expense-related pressures fall on the side of clients, who are sometimes surprised by high litigation fees and prefer to wait for a result to pay.  “The firms are more aggressive, they have more tools at their disposal to get paid, they’re more willing to litigate to get paid, especially if it’s a sort of one-off arrangement,” Minkoff said.  “Clients are faced with this kind of sticker shock.”

Akerman litigation partner Philip Touitou said law firms are even more focused on collections during the pandemic.  He said the crisis has “changed the dynamic” between clients struggling to make payments and law firms, who work to balance accommodations for struggling clients with their own financial pressures to make budget.  Touitou added that flexible fee structures are “here to stay” as law firms work to avoid potential fee disputes from the outset of a client engagement.

“I think the pandemic has only accelerated that effort,” Touitou said. He added that as firms reevaluate their costs after working remotely and cutting travel expenses to zero, they “may be in a better position to offer more flexible [fee] structures.”  “I think the benefits of law firm cost consciousness will work to the benefits of clients,” he said.

Article: Five Lessons for Recovering Attorney Fees in Texas

February 13, 2021

A recent article by Amanda G. Taylor, “Recovering Attorney’s Fees in Texas: Five Lessons” in BizLit News Blog reports on recovering attorney fees in Texas.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Obtaining an award of attorneys’ fees might be the final step in a long-waged litigation battle but to do so successfully requires careful planning and diligence from the outset of a case.  The Texas Supreme Court recently clarified the evidence required to obtain and affirm such an award.  Rohrmoos Venture v. UTSW DVA Healthcare, LLP, 578 S.W.3d 469 (Tex. 2019).  The Texas Supreme Court also recently confirmed that these evidentiary standards apply equally when fees are sought to be recovered as a sanction.  Nath v. Texas Children’s Hosp., 576 S.W.3d 707, 710 (Tex. 2019).  To best serve a client’s interests of recovering attorneys’ fees in Texas, whether as a prevailing party or as a sanction, lawyers should adhere to five lessons from Rohrmoos.

Lesson One:  Confirm a legal entitlement to recover fees.  “In Texas, as in the federal courts, each party must pay its own way in attorney’s fees … unless a statute or contract provides otherwise.”  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 484.  Certain claims, such as a breach of contract claim brought under Chapter 38 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, entitle a prevailing party to recover attorneys’ fees.  Other claims, such as a common law fraud claim, do not afford such a remedy.  In establishing your initial case strategy, it is important to consider which claims will and will not allow for recovery of fees, and advise your client about the pros and cons of pursuing each claim accordingly.  Also, be aware of fee-shifting procedural tools (such a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act) and various Texas statutes and rules that allow for recovery of fees as a sanction (such as Civil Practice and Remedies Code Chapters 9-10, and Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 215).

Lesson Two: Keep accurate, contemporaneous billing records.  Although billing records are not absolutely required to prove the amount of reasonable and necessary fees, it is “strongly encouraged” to submit such proof in support of attorneys’ fees.  Rohrmoos Venture, 578 S.W.3d at 502.  It is much easier to review, summarize, and testify about the work performed (often years later) if you have been diligent in your billing practices throughout.  Time should be kept in a manner that demonstrates the “(1) particular services performed, (2) who performed those services, (3) approximately when those services were performed, (4) the reasonable amount of time required to perform the services, and (5) the reasonable hourly rate for each person performing the services.”  Id.  It is also advisable to keep time in a manner that is specific enough to cover the topic but without legalese and without so much detail that heavy redactions become necessary.  Fact finders prefer to read invoices in plain English without the interruption of hidden text.

Lesson Three:  Your fee agreement does not control the amount awarded.  “[A] client’s agreement to a certain fee arrangement or obligation to pay a particular amount does not necessarily establish that fee as reasonable or necessary.”  Id. at 488.  Translation: even if you have agreed to handle the matter for a flat fee or contingency fee, you still must demonstrate that the amount of fees sought for recovery are reasonable and necessary based on the work performed and the time incurred.  Regardless of the fee arrangement with your client, keeping accurate and contemporaneous billing records is important.

Lesson Four: Remember to timely designate fee experts.   “Historically, claimants have proven reasonableness and necessity of attorney’s fees through an expert’s testimony—often the very attorney seeking the award.”  Id. at 490.  “[C]onclusory testimony devoid of any real substance will not support a fee award.”  Id. at 501.  Because expert testimony will be required, the attorney must remember to designate herself and any other attorney who will offer an opinion about the reasonableness and necessity of the fee amount(s) as an expert witness in compliance with the scheduling order or discovery control plan governing the case.

Lesson Five: Understand the “Texas two-step” calculation method.  At step one, calculate the “base” or “lodestar” amount by multiplying the “reasonable hours worked” by a “reasonable hourly rate.”  Id. at 498.  This is an “objective calculation” that yields a “presumptively reasonable” amount.  Id. at 497-98, 502.  The determination of what is a reasonable market rate and what is a reasonable amount of time will typically include consideration of the following factors: (1) the time and labor required, (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (3) the skill required to perform the legal service properly, (4) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services, (5) the amount involved, (6) the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services, (7) whether the fee is fixed or contingent and the uncertainty of collection, and (8) the results obtained.  Id. at 500.  At step two, “adjust[] the base calculation up or down based on relevant considerations … [that were not] subsumed in the first step.”  Id.  “If a fee claimant seeks an enhancement, it must produce specific evidence showing that a higher amount is necessary to achieve a reasonable fee award.”  Id. at 501. Remember that only “rare circumstances” justify such an adjustment.  Id. at 502.

Following these five lessons from the outset of a case will be beneficial to the expert testifying about the amount of fees at the end of a case.  More importantly, it will benefit your client’s best interest in obtaining a monetary award and being able to have that award affirmed on appeal.

Amanda G. Taylor serves as Practice Group Leader of Butler Snow LLP’s Appellate Group and practices from the firm’s Austin, TX office. As a Board-Certified Civil Appellate specialist, Amanda helps to shape successful case strategy from the outset of litigation through the end of an appeal.  Amanda is a detail-oriented lawyer who represents her clients with passion, stays current on emerging trends and issues, and brings a practical perspective to problem solving.  She has a broad range of experience handling complex civil disputes regarding contracts, fraud, tax, insurance, products, employment, real property, and trust and estates.  Amanda is also committed to community service through a number of positions in her State and Local Bar Associations.

Article: The Right Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?

February 7, 2021

A recent New York Law Journal article by Milton Williams and Christopher Dioguardi, “Retaining the ‘Right’ Retainer: Classic, Security or Advance-Payment?,” reports on different retainer types in New York.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

This article evaluates which type of retainer agreement gives attorneys the best chance to preemptively shield their retainer fees before a client ends up in bankruptcy or the Department of Justice seizes and forfeits the client’s assets.

The scenario is this: A struggling business on the precipice of bankruptcy, or a criminal defendant whose property is subject to forfeiture, would like to hire you.  The prospective client has funds available to pay its legal fees, but what if you and/or the client expect that bankruptcy trustees or the Department of Justice will soon claim those funds for themselves?

At the outset of an engagement, an attorney can structure his or her retainer agreement to protect the retainer to the greatest extent possible in the event the client’s creditor comes knocking.  New York law recognizes three types of retainers: “classic,” “security,” and “advance payment.”  And under New York law, a retainer fee is shielded from attachment so long as the client does not retain an interest in the funds. See Gala Enterprises v. Hewlett Packard Co., 970 F. Supp. 212, 219 (S.D.N.Y. 1997).  For this reason, described in more detail below, it is the “advance payment” retainer agreement that will likely provide the most protection.

The ‘Classic’ Retainer

This type of retainer is typically a single, up-front payment to the lawyer simply for being available to the client—the attorney commits to future legal work for a specific period of time, regardless of inconvenience or workload constraints.  The classic retainer is not for legal services, and is therefore earned upon receipt, whether or not the attorney performs any services for the client (i.e., it is nonrefundable). See Agusta & Ross v. Trancamp Contr., 193 Misc.2d 781, 785-86 (N.Y. Civ. Ct. 2002) (general retainer compensates a lawyer for “agree[ing] implicitly to turn down other work opportunities that might interfere with his ability to perform the retainer-client’s needs” and “giv[ing] up the right to be retained by a host of clients whose interests might conflict with those of the retainer-client”).

Because the classic retainer is earned upon receipt and is nonrefundable, it without a doubt provides the most protection against would-be creditors.  However, the classic retainer is really only “classic” in the sense that it relates to antiquity.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a situation in the modern practice of law where a client would want to pay a classic retainer.  And attorneys would be remiss to draw up a nonrefundable classic retainer agreement unless certain specific conditions are met.

In general, under New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(d)(4), “[a] lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge or collect … a nonrefundable retainer fee.” Further, under Rule 1.16(e), fees paid to a lawyer in advance for legal services are nonrefundable only to the extent they have been earned by the lawyer: “upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall promptly refund any part of a fee paid in advance that has not been earned.” See also Matter of Cooperman, 83 N.Y.2d 465, 471 (1994) (holding that nonrefundable retainer fee agreements clash with public policy and transgress the rules of professional conduct; affirming lower court decision that the use of nonrefundable fee arrangements warranted two-year suspension.); Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219 (narrowly construing the holding in Cooperman, and holding that only retainers with express non-refundability language are invalid per se).

The Security Retainer

While the classic retainer might offer the attorney the most security, the security retainer offers little defense against a client’s future creditors.  Typically, payments pursuant to a security retainer are placed in an escrow or trust account to be drawn upon only as the fee is earned.  In other words, the security retainer remains the property of the client until the attorney applies it to charges for services rendered.

So long as the client retains an interest in escrowed funds, the escrow account is attachable.  Under New York law, a security retainer may be attached so long as it is subject to the client’s “present or future control,” or is required to be returned to the client if not used to pay for services rendered. See, e.g., Lang v. State of New York, 258 A.D.2d 165, 171 (1st Dept. 1999); Potter v. MacLean, 75 A.D.3d 686, 687 (3d Dept. 2010) (defendant owed more than $20,000 in arrears on child support obligations and subsequently paid law firm a $15,000 retainer fee; the court found that the retainer fee, which was held in escrow, was subject to restraining order); M.M. v. T.M., 17 N.Y.S.3d 588, 599 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2015) (wife’s restraining notice against husband’s attorney’s security retainer was valid and enforceable); see also Pahlavi v. Laidlaw Holdings, 180 A.D.2d 595, 595-96 (1st Dept. 1992) (judgment debtor deposited $50,000 with his attorney after receipt of a restraining order and the court ordered his law firm to return them).

The Advance-Payment Retainer

Similar to the security retainer, the advance-payment retainer is a fee paid in advance for all or some of the services to be performed on a specific matter.  However, unlike a security retainer, ownership of the advance-payment retainer passes to the attorney immediately upon payment in exchange for the attorney’s promise to provide the legal services.  This type of retainer is likely the best way to ensure that the client has sufficient funds to pay for expected legal services.

Under an advance-payment retainer agreement, the law firm places the money into its operating account and may use the money as it chooses, subject only to the requirement that any unearned fee paid in advance be promptly refunded to the client upon termination of the relationship (recall Rule 1.16(e)).

A client’s contingent future interest in an advance-payment retainer, if any, that would be refunded if the firm’s services were prematurely terminated is not a sufficient basis for attachment. See Gala Enterprises, 970 F. Supp. at 219.  Therefore, the most secure option will likely be to require an advance payment for all services to be rendered, commonly referred to as a flat or fixed fee.  In other words, a creditor would not be able to seize such a retainer, even if part of the retainer may yet be refundable.  In Gala Enterprises, the court held that because a $150,000 flat fee as well as a $500,000 flat fee were subject to refund only if the legal services were prematurely terminated, the fees were therefore not attachable.

However, just because a client has paid an advance-payment retainer, does not mean that the retainer is untouchable.  Two specific possibilities come to mind.  First, Gala Enterprises illustrates that law firms might need to defend against fraudulent conveyance claims.  That being said, if the retainer is not excessive or unreasonable, the attorney is in a good position to defend against any such claims.  It goes without saying, when establishing a flat fee—or any fee for that matter—the fee must not be excessive. See Rule 1.5(a) (“[a] lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an excessive [] fee …”).

Second, attorneys of course must not accept funds that may have been obtained by fraud. See, e.g., S.E.C. v. Princeton Economic Intern. Ltd., 84 F. Supp. 2d 443 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (lawyer who blindly accepts fees from client under circumstances that would cause reasonable lawyer to question client’s intent in paying fees accepts fees at his peril.).

Conclusion

In sum, we offer this advice:

  1. Review the Rules of Professional Conduct and case law cited herein, as well as the relevant New York State Bar Association ethics opinions, specifically: Ethics Opinion 570, June 7, 1985; Ethics Opinion 816, Oct. 25, 2007; Ethics Opinion 983, Oct. 8, 2013; and Ethics Opinion 1202, Dec. 2, 2020.
  1. Be transparent and direct with prospective clients regarding retainer agreements.
  2. A reasonable advance-payment retainer for all services to be rendered will give attorneys the most protection against future unknown creditors.
  3. Make clear in the retainer agreement that the client acknowledges and agrees that the advance-payment will become the law firm’s property upon receipt and will be deposited into the law firm’s operating account, not into an escrow account or a segregated bank account.
  4. Acknowledge in the retainer agreement that the client may be entitled to a refund of all or part of advance payment based on the value of the legal services performed prior to termination.

Milton Williams is a partner and Christopher Dioguardi is an associate at Walden Macht & Haran LLP in New York.

Defense Firms and Clients Can Boast About Attorney Fee Wins

January 25, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Christine Simmons, “Both Law Firms and Clients Can Boast About Fee Wins,” reports that, several organizations have reported that, despite the Am Law 200’s worst fears, the legal industry enjoyed growth in 2020.  Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group and Hildebrandt Consulting have projected mid-single digit growth in revenue and mid to high single digit growth in profits. 

Last year, large firms managed to raise rate about 5%, according to James Jones, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Law Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession.  That’s remarkable considering the chaotic and depressing environment of 2020, and even more remarkable that the average annual rate increase for firms since 2008 has been about 3%.

But weren’t general counsel in cost control mode?  After all, according to survey data collected in June 2020 from 223 corporate legal departments, 89% of respondents said controlling outside counsel costs was a high priority.  So what gives?  How could law firms push through high rates at a time of such fee pressure?

Reconciling legal departments’ pressing need to cut costs with law firms’ revenue, profit and rate growth in 2020 requires a closer look at law firm segmentation, sector performance and the trajectory of the year.  But in the legal industry, 2020 is also a story about demand and the benefits of close cooperation on fee agreements, allowing both law firms and legal departments to have some bragging rights.

The Conversation

The lucrative year extended up and down the Am Law 100 and likely into the Second Hundred, but it came at different client relations strategies.  For the elite, rate and fee pressure was so little they could give out double bonuses to associates without billable hour requirements.  Wall Street firms and the Am Law 20 saw the benefit of ‘fight to quality” during an unpredictable year in business.  Meanwhile, some law firms did work with their clients on a mix of fee strategies and arrangements, to the benefit of both.

For instance, at Akerman, ranked No. 88 in the Am Law 100 last year, CEO Scott Meyers said collections remained steady last year, although Akerman worked with its clients to help them meet their own budgets while paying their legal bills.  “We’re close to our clients,” he said.  “We reached out to each one to understand, ‘what’s your financial position?  What’s your cash position?  What can you do, what can’t you do?’”  At the end of the financial year, the firm said it had a 6.5% increase in gross revenue in 2020.

Fee pressure, of course, depends on the industry.  And those with insurance industry clients and municipal clients are among those seeing the most discount pressure.  Mark Thompson, president and CEO of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, said while the firm’s hospital clients have returned to their pre-COVID payment rates, the firms’ base of municipal government clients haven’t yet returned to pre-COVID fee arrangements as a result of financial distress. “That is going to remain a problem going forward,” Thompson said in a Dec. 22 article. 

But nearly all sectors saw pressure in the beginning of the pandemic. At General Motors, the automaker reached out to the 19 firms on its panel of “strategic legal partners.” The second quarter presented an enormous, worrisome question mark, and the automaker—like so many businesses of all sizes—was looking to preserve cash.

GM general counsel Craig Glidden said the company didn’t know what would happen in the auto markets, which meant asking firms for help. And those firms stepped up, agreeing to deferred billing and alternative fee arrangements to relieve some of the company’s pressure.

The Significance

Yes, law departments are seeking high cost savings.  The 2021 Report on the State of the Legal Market from Thomson Reuters and Georgetown Law said spending on outside counsel did, in fact, decrease in the second and third quarters of 2020.  The report said 81% of legal departments found that general enforcement of billing guidelines, including reductions of invoice fees and expenses, was the most effective way to keep billing down.  Meanwhile, 53% of respondents requested standard discounts; 49% of respondents reduced timekeeper rate increases; and 45% used volume discounts.

At the same time work, the report shows that the average daily demand for law firm services per lawyer, based on billable hours, increased in the second half of the year, picking up in November to almost match the previous two year average.  So what happened to the portrait of the general counsel scrutinizing every line item and grilling firms about rate increase and discounts?

That picture is becoming increasingly faint.  Instead, the portrait emerging from 2020 is one of cooperation and demand.  Clients rushed to law firms for urgent legal advice during the pandemic, including counseling for workplace laws, PPP loans, restructuring and data security concerns.  Secondly, the circumstances from the pandemic gave rise to conversations about pricing, driving both sides of the law firm-client relationship to seek common ground—both in the form of tried-and-true alternative fee arrangements and those that reflect a more innovative approach.

Law firms have some leverage.  Just because a client wants a discount doesn’t mean a firm has to provide it.  “Clients understand the difficulty of onboarding new external counsel,” says McKinsey & Co. senior partner Alex D’Amico.  “There’s a real cost to bringing on a new firm.”

Polsinelli Sued Over Billing Issues

January 22, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Craig Clough, “Polsinelli Says Clients’ ‘Slacking Off’ Claims are “Meritless”,” reports that Polsinelli PC urged a Pennsylvania federal judge to toss a lawsuit...

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