A recent Law.com article by Suzanne Ganier of QuisLex, “Conventional Wisdom is Wrong: Legal Bill Review Won’t Harm Your Relationship with Outside Counsel”, reports on legal bill review. This article was posted with permission. The article reads:
Legal departments use various tools to manage spend and reduce costs, including shifting work from one law firm to another, moving from larger to smaller law firms, pulling more work in-house and employing more alternative legal service providers. However, many legal departments aren’t employing one tool that can reduce costs immediately and support other tools to produce long-term cost containment: legal bill review.
Not using legal bill review as a primary tool for cost containment is like trying to build a house without a hammer; you may be able to do it, but it’s going to be a lot more difficult. Most corporate legal departments recognize bill review will reduce outside counsel legal spend, as those partners don’t always comply with the department legal billing guidelines. High outside counsel spend can have a domino effect across the legal department, resulting in smaller budgets for other needs including technology and headcount.
So why don’t more legal departments implement bill review? The simple answer is relationships. Many fear legal bill review will irreparably harm the rapport with long-time outside counsel who are often handling sensitive issues, high-stakes litigation and other issues of the utmost importance to the organization.
These relationships have often been nurtured over time, involving people that have worked together for many years. And these relationships have hopefully resulted in success for all. But corporate legal departments are part of businesses, which live and die by budgets, revenue and margins. To remain competitive, they must stay hyper-focused on cost containment – in all areas, including the legal department. For this reason, legal bill review doesn’t just make sense; it becomes a necessity not only to be fiscally responsible, but also to help the business maximize its competitiveness. However, this fact doesn’t alleviate concerns about harming relationships with the department’s law firms. That so many have considered and rejected or have discontinued legal bill review due to such concerns demonstrates their power. So how do you solve this problem?
Acknowledge the Issue
First, recognize the problem. In this context, acknowledge three things:
- Legal bill review is a cost containment necessity.
- Corporate legal departments are implementing legal bill review.
- The law firms they work with are going to be concerned that legal bill review means their bills will be unjustifiably reduced.
Corporate legal departments often don’t acknowledge one or all of these points. Some believe they can reach cost containment goals through other means such as rate negotiations, discounts or e-billing (building that house without the hammer). Others think if they advocate for the law firm under the guise of protecting the relationship, they can make legal bill review magically disappear. Such thinking fails to admit the importance of cost containment, which can be harmful to the business.
Have the Conversation
Have a frank and open conversation about legal bill review with your outside counsel. Go beyond discussing the nuts and bolts and talk to the firms about why bill review is necessary to meet the financial and strategic goals of the business. Recognize the value of the relationship but focus on the fact that both the corporate legal department and the law firm are businesses and how it is in the best interest of both that the relationship be treated as a business as opposed to a personal one. Acknowledge that with the implementation of legal bill review, the firm will undoubtedly see their invoices reduced for failure to comply with the legal billing guidelines. But reassure the firm it will continue to get paid for its time and effort and will be further helped to acclimate to the process.
Be frank, open and transparent with each law firm, and they will return the favor. Such conversations will not only ease the implementation of legal bill review, but they will also help to strengthen the relationship.
Show Them How to Do It
There isn’t a class in law school called “Appropriate Legal Billing” (although some would argue there should be,) and there isn’t much training on this topic. Even attorneys of long standing may not understand billing best practices and know how to comply with a client’s legal billing guidelines. Frustrated counsel often wish their clients would give them more guidance. Nothing will hurt a relationship faster than telling firms to change their behavior but not providing the details on how. Providing firms with specific training on how to meet your expectations will further improve the relationship. If law firms can see they aren’t being left to figure it out on their own, they will be more inclined to view legal bill review as a partnership, thereby strengthening that relationship.
Ask for Help
Most importantly, ask for help. Explain to the law firm why, as a valued partner, it’s being asked to do this. People want to help; if you give them the opportunity, they will usually go out of their way to offer it. Being honest about what your business needs and how firms can help meet those needs opens the door to that help and makes the relationship between law firms and the corporate legal department stronger.
It’s a cliché, but still true – change is never easy. But change doesn’t have to be painful. While law firms are never going to celebrate legal bill review, it doesn’t have to harm the relationship between law firm and client and, perhaps, can even enhance it.