(This is part 2 of a 4 part series. You can download the entire SOLP 2013 here.)
In-house legal departments are now facing the same cost savings pressures as other corporate departments. In the past “legal” was able to largely avoid this conversation with leadership. They would dodge the question by insisting that they could not predict the number of lawsuits or deals they would have and therefore could not provide an estimate of legal fees. After all, without this base-line budget, how could they possibly reduce it? Consequently, outside firms were long spared the indignity of managing costs, and the cognitive strain of lowering rates.
During the economic downturn of 2008, when leadership broached the subject, they no longer accepted the standard answer. One CEO commented that “the legal department was the last bastion of cost savings” for the company. The issue was not the amount of legal work, but instead the cost of it. Now the General Counsel (GC) has to toe the same line as every other department head; minimize the costs and increase the productivity.
The first and most obvious line of attack for in-house legal departments to reduce legal spend was to request discounts. In recent years, many have significantly increased pressure on their outside firms for larger and larger discounts. As one lawyer commented in 2010, “15 is the new 10” as in a 15% discount off of standard rates. (I have heard that some GCs even attend conferences and write the level of discount they are getting on their name tags for all to see; a spontaneous market level reaction to the lack of clear pricing across the sector.) Another type of discount is the rate freeze. As firms make their annual move to raise rates, many GCs are asking for, or in some cases demanding, they stay the same. Discounts and freezes are an easy and quantifiable way for GCs to demonstrate the appearance of savings to corporate management.
Another market level reaction (in addition to the Conference Name Tag Exchange) is a general and growing distrust of outside firms’ billing practices. As budgetary pressures mounted, clients began focusing on very specific aspects of legal pricing that they deemed “abusive.” One easy target was billings from first-year associates. A number of clients viewed this as training; something for which they believed they should not have to pay.. In many cases, the backlash against paying for first-year hours may stem from the public awareness of young lawyers’ salaries thanks to the lock-step increases across the industry. At $160,000, first-year associates often make higher salaries straight out of school than many senior in-house attorneys, plus they get additional bonuses for billing lots and lots of hours, which only adds insult to injury. Unsurprisingly, first-year associates have become a lightning rod for client anger and distrust.
AFAs and RFPs, PDQ
Some clients have continued experimenting with Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs) and have expanded their use of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) in securing legal work. Here they often ask for fixed fee proposals in order to compare pricing between competing firms. This effort has led to market drops at the fee level for certain types of legal work, such as patent litigation, where fixed fees, or fixed fees per phase – and in some cases fee caps (hourly billing with a ‘not to exceed’ amount) – have been more widely adopted. However, since in-house legal departments have never before faced the challenge of defining the scope of a matter, many RFPs lack a useful scope. Consequently, too many RFPs are vaguely worded or provide outdated metrics with an eye towards getting competitive bids from various firms. Many firms struggle to give coherent responses to these RFP questions and too often this results in completely incomparable bids to the same RFP. One large client confided in me that they have never awarded work under their RFP, because they had no clear way of choosing the lowest cost or best value firms.
Of course, these examples are from the more savvy clients. If you look at the broader market, you will find a very wide range of adoption levels. Some clients are simply implementing the suggestions they have read in the latest magazine article (e.g. “Ask for a fixed fee!”). Others have entire teams and large scale efforts focused on overall savings (e.g. Pfizer Legal Alliance). While some have not yet even begun asking for discounts.
As in-house legal departments struggle to understand their legal spend and attempt to bring it under control, the corporate procurement department has increasingly been present in legal pricing discussions. Procurement often gets involved at the request of the legal department , but occasionally at corporate leadership’s insistence. In the long run, this effort should produce measurable results, however, there are numerous challenges facing procurement when evaluating legal services.
Procurement typically assesses current costs of a product or service on a per unit basis, and then works to lower that per unit cost. As I have already established, the legal market does not currently have a mechanism to set these prices, nor does it have a clear understanding of the “unit” for sale. This leads procurement to measure billing rates as the per unit cost of legal services, which may result in lower rates, but may or may not actually save the client money. And just as importantly, the risk factors of going to lower cost providers are not always factored into the equation. To procurement, a lawyer is a lawyer, much like a widget is a widget. Many procurement departments seem to be advancing to a better understanding of legal services, but it is going to be some time before these efforts play out. Absent market pricing mechanisms at the fee level, procurement will continue to struggle to find cost savings and then attain them.
One GC for a food services company commented that he was holding procurement at bay, since they may be good at reducing costs, but they do not live with the consequences. The point here is that procurement may have value, but the current level of chaos in the legal pricing market makes it hard to achieve that value.
What most clients ultimately want to know is that a patent litigation will cost $X through the Markman hearing or that an acquisition will cost $Y for Due Diligence, and $Z to close the deal. But an acquisition service may have a price range of $10,000 to $10,000,000 – from experience, that type of fee range is not an exaggeration – and what drives the range is a combination of scope, size and client goals related to the deal. For the reasons outlined above, it may be impossible for a market to ever establish a fair price within that environment.
A lack of clear or consistent market pricing information has led many clients to begin looking for pricing information elsewhere. Many have started looking to e-billing vendors to use their billing data to determine a market price for a given service. The CT Tymetrix Real Rate Report is one example. Tymetrix has, by their own account, about 42 billion dollars in legal spend logged down the to time entry level. Services like this are attempting to analyze their data to determine average rates for categories of timekeepers, variances in rates by location, variances in rates by type of work, and fees per type of work.
I would caution both firms and clients to use this type of data very thoughtfully. This is not “market data” in the classical economics sense. It is pulled from relatively small samples with known and unknown biases. Relying exclusively on this data as a market mechanism to establish pricing would be unwise. However, this data might, on some level, give a sense of current legal prices, and more importantly, it may reveal how work is managed within firms. As clients are trying to lower legal costs, and firms are trying to keep clients happy, the real trick will be more cost-conscious management of legal work. This kind of data may provide real insights into how work is staffed and where efficiencies can be realized.
In summary, the client-side of the market is flailing about, grasping for ideas, latching on to any data they can find, and hoping for some level of rationality to emerge. But they are not the only players creating chaos while hoping for some sense of calm.